Bangladesh’s plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to a small silt island will expose them to worse threats than they already face. With repatriation still impossible, humanitarian agencies must push the government to work with communities on more sustainable solutions.
The World Food Programme and other UN agencies are preparing to facilitate Bangladesh’s plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to the small silt island of Bhasan Char. Bangladesh is now home to more than one million Rohingya who have fled Myanmar. The Bangladeshi government claims that relocating 23,000 refugees from Cox’s Bazar refugee camp as soon as April will relieve overcrowding issues.
Humanitarian agencies and human rights groups have questioned and opposed the plan. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee visited Bhasan Char in January and has emphasized that Bangladesh would need the full, prior, and informed consent of the refugees.
But the Bangladeshi government has yet to hold any official public consultations with Rohingya refugees. Based on Yanghee Lee’s comments, it seemed that the UN wouldn’t back the plan.
However, UN humanitarian agencies are now facilitating the move. They’ll be complicit in a plan that exposes the refugees to additional risks, rather than addressing problems with the current camps.
The plan fails to address the issues present in Cox’s Bazar
The Bhasan Char plan was designed to reduce the risks the Rohingya currently face in Cox’s Bazar: cyclones, landslides, and flooding could all prove disastrous in overcrowded conditions. Currently, the camps in Cox’s Bazar also offer Rohingya limited educational and economic opportunities.
The Bhasan Char plan fails to address any of these issues. The Rohingya would still be exposed to environmental threats and the island, hours away from the mainland, would further restrict their freedom of movement and economic opportunities.
The participation of UN agencies gives legitimacy to the dangerous Bhasan Char plan. They’ve skipped over unanswered questions of whether the relocation should take place and moved on to debates of how and when it will happen.
Bangladesh has turned the island into a US$280 million technological solution, collaborating with Chinese mega-dam firm Sinohydro and British engineers at HR Wallingford on a development project that is far more permanent and planned than the existing camps. Together, they’re building facilities for refugees on a foundation that is literally and figuratively unviable. At present, the government prohibits buildings of hard materials and cyclone-resistant designs in all areas except on Bhasan Char.
Environmental security threats in the region and continued violence in Rakhine state show that the Rohingya need sustainable solutions. The Bangladeshi government must support humanitarian agencies to work with the Rohingya to build secure, sustainable communities.
Technology can’t turn a floating prison into a home
Bhasan Char is one of the numerous small, moving silt islands in the Bay of Bengal. It emerged from the water less than 20 years ago.
When Bangladesh first proposed relocating the Rohingya to the island in 2015, humanitarian agencies immediately suggested it was vulnerable, exposed and not economically sustainable.
But the Bangladesh Navy, Chinese dam building firm Sinohydro and British hydraulics consultancy HR Wallingford have worked to build concrete and iron-roofed housing on the island for 70,000 people along with disaster shelters for 17,000. Though the government was discussing plans to move 100,000 refugees to the island in 2017, they are now suggesting moving an initial group of 23,000 before making a decision on the rest. It’s unclear whether this initial group would be determined by a lottery or on a volunteer basis.
Houses for refugees are built 1.2 metres above the ground to protect against flooding. A three-metre embankment has been built around the full relocation site on 1,500 acres of the 13,000-acre island.
The facilities give each refugee an average of 3.6 square metres, barely fulfilling the UN minimum of 3.5 square metres per person for planned emergency settlements. Human rights groups have questioned whether the facilities are adequate.
The Rohingya will be more vulnerable than in Cox’s Bazar
Of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones ever recorded, 26 occured in the Bay of Bengal. Storms in the area are getting more intense and more frequent due to climate change and inhabitants of Bay of Bengal islands such as Kutubdia, Sagar and Sandwip already may need to leave their homes. If the construction on Bhasan Char is an example of how the government and development contractors hope to approach climate change adaptation and resilience, the Rohingya won’t be the only ones at risk.
Bangladeshi government officials have said that any Rohingya on Bhasan Char would “essentially have access to the same basic rights as those who live in Cox’s Bazar,” and that refugees on the island would be able to travel freely to visit family on the mainland.
This journey alone would be dangerous. Pirates are active in the waters around the island, often kidnapping fishermen for ransom. According to Dr Wakar Uddin, a Rohingya-American born in Maungdaw in Myanmar and a professor at Pennsylvania State University, the isolation could be debilitating for a refugee community living there. Local community members in the nearest settlements say they rarely travel to the island.
The Rohingya need a sustainable solution
The risks of Bhasan Char make it a non-viable relocation site. Conditions in Myanmar are still unsafe for Rohingya and repatriation is impossible at the moment. Rohingya who’ve remained in Rakhine have little freedom of movement and face arbitrary arrest and forced labour. Violent clashes between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army also continue. If the peace process stalls, Rohingya refugees may still be in Cox’s Bazar in 10 years’ time.
The Rohingya need a solution to overcrowding that gives them at least medium-term security and sustainable homes. There are better options on the table than Bhasan Char. The 2018 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis has yet to be fully funded and implemented, in large part because of resistance from the Bangladeshi government. There are potential relocation sites in the Ukhiya sub-district as well.
Bangladesh also has yet to grant humanitarian groups unrestricted access to the refugees, a step that would connect the Rohingya communities with vital resources, improve conditions in Cox’s Bazar and give decisionmakers time to consult with the refugees to find a sustainable solution.
Yanghee Lee and others inside the UN are still resisting the plan and Bangladesh would do well to address their concerns and explore their proposals.
From Australia’s refugee “processing centres” on Nauru, Manus and elsewhere, to the overwhelmed migrant centres on Lesbos, we’ve already seen numerous problems with restricting refugees’ freedom of movement and isolating them from broader societies and economies. The UN may be one of the few actors that can push the Bangladeshi government to reconsider.