The 'local turn', 'hybridity', and 'friction' in refugee governance: an ethnography of Refugee-Led Organizations (RLOs) in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

The concepts of the ‘local turn,’ ‘localisation,’ and ‘global-local dynamics’ have gained renewed scholarly interest and significance within the realm of peacebuilding, humanitarian policy, and refugee governance. Within the United Nations (UN) system and allied organizations, terms such as ‘local governance,’ ‘local capacities,’ ‘local ownership,’ and ‘local agency’ have been widely employed. However, recent research has revealed that the usage of ‘the local’ has predominantly been rhetorical, with limited practical implementation. Moreover, ‘the local’ has often been instrumentalized to promote a (neo)liberal agenda, necessitating critical examination of its application.

Against this backdrop, this paper takes the ‘local turn’ in humanitarian and refugee governance as a starting point to investigate grassroots mobilization facilitated by Refugee-Led Organizations (RLOs) within refugee camps. The objective is to comprehend the unfolding dynamics of ‘localisation’ in the context of humanitarian and refugee governance in one of the world’s largest refugee camps located in Bangladesh, where approximately one million Rohingya refugees endure inhumane conditions. In particular, this research aims to answer: What is the nature and extent of grassroots mobilization by Refugee-led Organizations (RLOs)? What is the nature of engagement and relationship between RLOs, (I)NGOs, and state actors? How do ‘local agency’ and ‘local ownership’ unfold in complex emergencies?

The findings of the study highlight the ambiguity and contested conceptualization of the concept of the ‘local’ among RLOs, NGOs, INGOs, and government institutions. Due to ‘legal compulsion,’ there is no ‘formal’ recognition of the existence of RLOs. Although some RLOs work with international bodies, there is a clear bias towards larger and more ‘important’ RLOs, resulting in discrimination against others. Consequently, this dynamic has engendered complex interactions characterized by ‘friction’. Despite receiving no funding, RLOs engage in altruistic work for their community, driven by the desire for a ‘return to homeland’ and the building of a future for the Rohingya generations. However, in the context of increased criminality in the camps, which I refer to as ‘governance in dark times,’ national institutions have emerged as coercive actors in refugee governance, imposing stringent surveillance measures on the refugees and RLOs.

Using a decolonial lens, it becomes evident that power relations between (inter)national institutions and local actors are asymmetrical and revolve around the rhetoric of ‘us vs. them’ and ‘multilevel saviour vs. sufferers.’ International institutions continue to employ an approach rooted in colonial modernity, characterized by ‘capacity development/building,’ when engaging with RLOs. Despite the immense potential for grassroots mobilization by camp-based community organizations (RLOs) within different Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, partnership, mutual respect, and opportunities for learning between international, national, and local actors are noticeably absent.