Is the relocation of the refugees to Bhashan Char a bad idea?

The Rohingya relocation conundrum Kamal Ahmed December 10, 2020

Rohingyas are seen onboard a ship as they are taken to Bhasan Char island on December 4th 2020. Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo.

The Bangladesh government has urged the United Nations (UN) and international community not to misinterpret or undermine its “genuine efforts to improve the lives of Rohingya refugees through their ongoing relocation to Bhasan Char”. Its statement follows the relocation on December 4th 2020 of 1,642 Rohingyas to a secluded island in the Bay of Bengal within Noakhali’s Hatiya upazila.

The rest of the world, however, remains sceptical and keeps questioning the safety of the relocated refugees and the lack of transparency in the whole process. The exercise has been described by some international media outlets as “unilateral” and akin to the “resettling of unwanted refugees in a prison island.” 

The UN, which has been assisting the Bangladesh government since the beginning of the refugee influx in managing the wellbeing of the Rohingya refugees and fulfilling their basic needs, disassociated itself from the relocation process. The UN said that it was not involved in preparations and had been given “limited information” about the relocations. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, called on Bangladesh to uphold its commitment that the relocation of Rohingya to the island would be voluntary and once again expressed its readiness to evaluate conditions on the island to ensure that it is a “safe and sustainable place for refugees to live”.

Facing widespread opposition to the relocation plan, Bangladesh has launched a two-pronged approach — one for the domestic consumption and the other for the international community. For the Bangladesh audience, the foreign minister, AKA Momen, criticised the international  community saying that “while international agencies make noise about facilities in the Rohingya camps or Bhasan Char, none had the courage nor sincerity to approach Myanmar to create a conducive environment leading to the Rohingyas’ repatriation to their own country in safety and security, and in a dignified way for the wellbeing of Myanmar”. 

However, at the UN, the permanent mission of Bangladesh published a more detailed rationale justifying its unilateral action. These included concerns over extreme congestion in the camps in Cox’s Bazar and to avert risks of death due to landslides and deteriorating security situation due to Rohingyas prolonged stay in the overcrowded conditions. It also listed steps taken with regards to housing, livelihood, and opportunities for economic activities for the Rohingyas in the island. It asserted that the process was transparent from the very beginning and any relocation would be entirely on a voluntary basis. It noted that a good number of Rohingya representatives undertook a “go and see” visit to Bhashan Char to see the facilities and make an independent and informed choice. It also stated that a number of NGOs and journalists also visited the island and all of them expressed their high satisfaction at the available facilities in Bhashan Char. 

However, contrary to the official government narratives, the Rohingya refugee relocation exercise raises following questions:

1. Why is the UN absent from the relocation process despite their mandate to assist in providing relief and other basic needs to the refugees taken to Bhashan Char?  A number of  UN agencies including UNHCR, IOM, UNICEF, WHO, WFP have been engaged in providing relief and life saving services to Rohingya refugees from the very beginning dating back to the early eighties. Rohingya activists and rights groups claim that the relocation was not voluntary and those who have opted for it have been either coerced or misled with false promises. The foreign minister’s comment that “negative campaign, unrealistic conditions and static position of the United Nations agencies made it impossible for the government to include them” fails to address the concerns. 

2. Why is the Bangladesh government still refusing permission to the UN to carry out a technical risk assessment survey of the island? It is particularly crucial, as many rights groups and international media have expressed concerns about the safety and sustainability of the island that was formed less than two decades ago and allegedly is highly prone to flooding during high tides.

3. Why have local and international non-governmental organisations well-known for their works with refugees been denied access to Bhashan Char, while some unknown NGOs have instead been brought in to work among the relocated Rohingyas?

4. Why have representatives from the international media been kept away from Bhashan Char raising suspicions that the government intends to do things without proper scrutiny.

5. Does the government intend to provide the resources for the 100,000 Rohingyas, placed on the island, for as long as required, as it has so far done. And if so, for how long do they project the Rohingyas will need to stay?

6. Would creating economic opportunities for refugees in Bhashan Char be an incentive for them to resettle there? Reactions among Rohingya activists living in various Western countries have underlined their apprehensions that the relocation will stall the global push for an early repatriation to Myanmar.

7. Could it be sending a wrong signal to Myanmar and the international community who might see it as an attempt to integrate the Rohingya with the local population?

8. How can relocating only one-tenth of the refugee population significantly help in the decongestion at the camps in Cox’s Bazar?

9. Will the Rohingyas relocated in Bhashan Char have freedom to travel to the mainland to visit their family members? If not, the allegations that the char has become an “island prison” will gain traction and certainly cause some backlash among the refugee community as well as the wider world. 

Despite the government’s claim that they consulted with the UN and other stakeholders preceding the relocation, its refusal to allow independent assessment has created a trust deficiency among international partners. Although Bangladesh as a host country has the right to decide where and how it houses over a million Rohingya refugees, it too has to meet certain conditions, especially about ensuring their physical safety and universal human rights and ensuring its actions are transparent and open to scrutiny. This is something which is particularly important when foreign aid and expertise are required. Financial assistance from donor nations and institutions has been dwindling fast and the latest global crisis induced by Covid-19 pandemic makes it even gloomier. In this context, it is quite crucial not to undermine trust in dealing both with the refugees and with other development partners. 

Some observers say that the Bhashan Char project was similar to many other development projects which lack a proper cost-benefit analysis and has been commissioned at the behest of certain special interest groups.

They argue that in 2017, when the project was undertaken, the idea was promoted by the Chinese who have since provided engineering and technological support. They have also pointed out that China is one of two countries — the other is India — with a huge interest in Myanmar and has always insisted that the Rohingya issue should be settled bilaterally, without the involvement of the UN. It should be noted here that Bangladesh, as early as November 2017, just three months after the Rohingya exodus, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Myanmar on resolving the issue of “displaced Myanmar nationals”. One of the ironies in this crisis is that though China has been continuously and consistently shielding Myanmar from accountability for committing genocide and ethnic cleansing, Bangladesh is still willing to rely on Beijing’s good offices for a negotiated settlement on the question of Rohingya repatriation.●

Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.