In sprawling camps that dot Bangladesh’s southern coast, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees spend each day in limbo. Questions about what their future holds have intensified in recent weeks as Bangladesh and Myanmar negotiate the tense push and pull of repatriation.

“It is a bit of a mix of difficulty coping with what's gone on in the past along with difficulty coping with how their life has changed and what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis,” said Jodi Nelan, mental health activities manager, Médecins Sans Frontières.

In mid-November, Bangladeshi officials arrived at Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar with buses, ready to begin the repatriation process by transporting a preapproved list of refugees to transit camps on the border.

Aid groups for refugee

Not one refugee volunteered to repatriate. Instead, groups gathered to stress they would only return to Myanmar once certain conditions — including security from violence, basic rights, and citizenship — were granted by the Myanmar government.

The repatriation exercise only served to further upset an already deeply distressed population, several mental health experts working in the camps told Devex. In the lead-up, some Rohingya fled their shelters for fear of being forced to return to Myanmar, and others were unwilling to accept any humanitarian aid services at all, worried that it would link them to the repatriation process, according to the response’s Inter-Sector Coordination Group November report. 

Aid groups have been providing mental health support since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled a Myanmar military crackdown in August 2017, carrying with them harrowing tales of rape, murder, and arson as they took shelter with the estimated 200,000 refugees already in Bangladesh.

“In the beginning, it was a lot of acute reactions to things that someone had just experienced, like ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ or ‘my loved ones just died,’” said Jodi Nelan, mental health activities manager for Médecins Sans Frontières’ response in Kutupalong and Balukhali camps.

“And now it's sort of a bit of a mix of difficulty coping with what's gone on in the past along with difficulty coping with how their life has changed and what they're experiencing on a day-to-day basis,’” said Jodi

MSF’s services have remained largely the same since the initial refugee influx, but “what has changed is what's actually happening in the counseling sessions, because the needs of the people have changed,” Nelan said.

Aid groups are now working to adapt services to better serve refugees stuck in a toxic state of limbo — providing continued education about psychosocial support, holding one-on-one and group counseling sessions, and integrating efforts to monitor children for signs of distress.