Left in Limbo – The Case for Economic Empowerment of Refugees and Host Communities in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

International Rescue Committee (IRC), September 2019



This brief highlights the potential of livelihoods programming to increase self-reliance and economic empowerment for affected communities in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Over 900,000 Rohingya refugees live in Cox’s Bazar, the majority in the Kutupalong Expansion Site. This brief draws on the findings of a livelihoods assessment conducted by the IRC in Cox’s Bazar in April and May of 2019.

Key points:

  • Livelihood opportunities for refugees tend to be limited, ad hoc and small-scale. Restrictions on freedom of movement and the right to work limit refugees’ ability to establish livelihoods, often leading to negative coping strategies. Refugees also face obstacles to accessing financial services and opening bank accounts due to a lack of identification documents, and they are not permitted to buy SIM cards. While not formally permitted, refugee men nevertheless work informally as day laborers and run small businesses in the camps. Despite the restrictions on work and fishing, approximately one-third of refugee households engage in an income generating activity.
  • Host communities are experiencing some negative impacts on livelihoods due to the presence of refugees. Host community men are typically engaged in casual labor inside and outside of the camps, fishing, and operating small market enterprises. Increased labor and business competition from refugees is driving down wages and profits for host communities. Environmental degradation and increased pressure on infrastructure is decreasing economic opportunity for host communities who depend on these resources for their livelihoods.
  • Livelihoods for women in both refugee and host communities are more limited, even though some refugee and host community women serve as NGO volunteers.
  • Both refugees and the host community report significant obstacles to establishing and expanding livelihood activities, including lack of access to finance, lack of training and skills, onerous business registration requirements, and poor infrastructure.
  • With the appropriate policies and support, market conditions are conducive for livelihoods programs to have a significant positive impact, in particular cash-based programming. Markets are functioning, providing goods to meet basic needs and adequate food diversity. Vendors are well connected to external markets, sourcing in-demand items and inputs through travel or established agent networks. There is high demand from consumers for diverse and nutritious foods. Increased demand puts upward pressure on food prices but also creates opportunities for new or expanded enterprises.
  • Livelihood programs should aim to improve self-reliance for both refugee and host communities. Programs should include a specific focus on women’s economic empowerment to address the particular barriers women and girls face in accessing formal economic opportunities and to mitigate the risk of gender-based violence. Such programs would contribute to the development of Cox’s Bazar and Bangladesh as a whole.
  • For the Government of Bangladesh (GoB), there is an opportunity to reduce refugee reliance on aid, improve social cohesion, and contribute to the overall development of Cox’s Bazar, through the removal of barriers to livelihoods for both host and refugee communities, and women in particular. Specific recommendations for GoB include: (a) lifting restrictions on movement and the right to work for refugees; (b) allowing medium term economic recovery and development programming such as skills trainings, livelihoods support, and cash-based interventions; (c) promoting access to financial services for refugees and host communities through the provision of civil documentation—refugees could be included in the National Financial Inclusion Strategy and supported by easing Know Your Customer regulations, allowing them to open bank accounts, register SIM cards and access formal mobile money; (d) reforming regulatory procedures for business ownership, registration, inspection and taxation, eliminating camp differences in market regulations and oversight—this should include refugee home-based businesses to address safety and cultural concerns experienced by women; (e) improving market infrastructure to enhance business activities within markets and sustainably develop Cox’s Bazar; and (f) allowing for a multi-year Joint Response Plan (JRP) for Cox’s Bazar to enable sustainable planning and investment.

For donors and implementing partners, strategies and programs aimed at improving refugee and host-community self-reliance should be advocated for and prioritized, including through increased emphasis of women’s economic empowerment. Specific recommendations for donors and implementing partners include: (a) proactively engaging GoB to allow self-sustaining livelihoods programming for refugees; (b) delivering adequate levels of multi-year funding and implementing livelihood programs that can provide refugees and host communities with vocational skills, access to finance and capital, and work opportunities, including specific opportunities for women; (c) emphasizing a gender transformative approach in programming, and supporting refugee and host women to take advantage of livelihood opportunities; (d) supporting livelihood programs that target youth and older adolescent girls that have missed formal educational opportunities including vocational skills training; and (e) supporting the identification and funding of investments to enhance job opportunities in Cox’s Bazar, including through international financial institutions and the