Authorities in Bangladesh have started to settle Rohingya refugees on a previously uninhabited island in a cyclone-prone area, despite stern opposition from rights groups that warn that a large storm could swamp the island, endangering thousands of lives. Several humanitarian groups as well as the United Nations (UN) have firmly rejected the forced resettlement of Rohingya on Bhashan Char, first proposed in 2014. The remote island in the Bay of Bengal is considered dangerous for human habitation.
The Bangladeshi government has relocated as many as 1 600 Rohingya refugees, saying it only transfers people who “wilfully chose” to shift and that the move will alleviate chronic overcrowding in refugee camps, which are home to more than one million Rohingya refugees. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it intended to evacuate 100 000 Rohingya because of “extreme congestion” and the “deteriorating security situation” in the camps.
The government argued that the island was equipped with “proper infrastructure and improved facilities” and said it hoped to work with 22 humanitarian agencies that had agreed to assist the UN in this endeavour. But the UN office in Bangladesh clarified that it was not involved in the preparations for the relocation or identification of refugees to the island and had been given limited information on the whole operation. The UN insisted that “any relocations to Bhasan Char should be preceded by comprehensive technical protection assessments”.
Filippo Grandi from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also wrote on Twitter that the agency and its partners have requested access to refugees in order to hear their voices, understand their concerns and see the island’s conditions.
In September, five rights groups wrote to Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Masud Bin Momen, seeking entrance to Bhasan Char, including “unfettered access” to meet with refugees, and for a UN protection team as well as a UN-led technical team to review the sustainability and environmental conditions on the island, which is located some 34km from mainland Bangladesh.
The geographical outline of Bhashan Char – which means “floating island” in Bengali – makes it susceptible to cyclones and floods. The island used to be regularly submerged by monsoon rains, but the Bangladeshi navy has spent over $112 million to build flood protection, along with barracks, hospitals and mosques.
Rights groups signal imminent dangers
The Bangladeshi government’s unilateral move has drawn severe criticism from humanitarian groups. They argue that there is strong evidence of Rohingyas being forced to relocate or being lured to the island, where the living conditions are inhumane.
Caritas Bangladesh, one of the NGOs that initially signed up to operate on the island, said that because of a shortage of donor support, it would not be able to offer services on the island and that some other NGOs might also follow suit. Executive director at Caritas Bangladesh Ranjon Francis Rozario told Devex that the agency’s partners and other donors do not agree to fund any operations in Bhasan Char. “We then politely informed the NGO Affairs Bureau about our inability [to continue operating on the island],” Rozario said.
Amnesty International also released a scathing report on the difficulties faced by over 300 Rohingya who had already been shifted to the island. The report included allegations of inadequate and unhygienic living conditions, limited food and health services, a lack of telephones for refugees to connect with their families and cases of sexual assault. “Based on the experiences of those that Amnesty International has spoken to, many of the Rohingya who have signed up to relocate to Bhashan Char are doing so out of compulsion rather than choice,” said Omar Waraich, the head of South Asia at Amnesty International.
Another US-based rights organisation, Refugees International, called Bangladesh’s plan “short-sighted and inhumane”, especially given that it comes at a time when the cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal is continuing. “As the devastation wrought by Cyclone Amphan demonstrated this summer, super cyclones are the way of the future, and conditions on the isolated island may be too dangerous for the Rohingya,” it said.
In October, Al Jazeera reported on Bangladeshi naval officers beating Rohingya men, women and children with sticks after 306 refugees were brought to the island. The Navy rescued 277 of them after they had tried to escape by boat to Malaysia but were left stranded at sea for months. The refugees said they were being detained against their will, with some even resorting to hunger strikes.
Documentary filmmaker Shafiur Rahman, who works on Rohingya issues, argues that the Bangladeshi government’s commitment to shift Rohingya to Bhasan Char is not only a great motivator for keeping the UN at bay and ignoring pesky offers to inspect the facilities in order to afford protection and safeguard the refugees, but it is also essentially a system of rent-seeking.
“The rent-seekers, politicians and the government play the system in an unholy alliance so that the state spends resources to create and maintain the rents. The monumental expenditure on Bhasan Char, circa $300 million to $350 million, is necessary for exactly that – the capture of rents,” he underlines.
A tormented community
The Rohingya people, often described as the world’s most persecuted minority, are an ethnic group from Myanmar’s Rakhine State who primarily follow Islam. There were an estimated one million Rohingya remaining in Myanmar prior to the Rohingya genocide in 2017. In August 2017, the Myanmar army systematically attacked the community. Human rights groups and senior UN officials said it amounted to ethnic cleansing.
This state-backed violence was allegedly triggered after an attack on police outposts in western Myanmar by armed groups alleged to belong to the community. Since August 2017, an estimated 24 000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency. More than 34 000 Rohingya were thrown into fires, some 114 000 more were beaten and as many as 18 000 Rohingya women and girls were raped, said the agency’s report, titled Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience. More than 115 000 Rohingya homes were burned down and some 113 000 others vandalised, it noted.
There are two cases continuing against Myanmar – one at the International Criminal Court and another at the International Court of Justice in the Hague – for its 2017 military operation that forced Rohingya to cross over to Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis has left the global reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi in tatters, especially after the Nobel Peace Prize laureate defended her country against allegations of genocide. Human rights activists contend that the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar continues and that the Buddhist-majority nation was doing little to ensure the return of displaced Rohingyas.
In excess of 740 000 Rohingya – the majority of them children, women and the elderly – fled their homes for safety and took refuge in the cramped, squalid refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, considered one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Decades of persecution, statelessness and targeted abuse have confronted the Rohingya people, prompting many of them to migrate to neighbouring Bangladesh. Prior to the mass exodus in 2017, more than 200 000 Rohingya refugees were sheltering in Bangladesh as a result of earlier displacements. Under Myanmar’s nationality law, they are refused citizenship and are not entitled to freedom of travel, state schooling and civil service employment.
Pandemic aggravates risks
An estimated 860 000 Rohingya refugees now live in 34 overcrowded camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf districts of Cox’s Bazar. The Covid-19 situation has already exacerbated some of the threats facing the Rohingya refugees in camps, with relief organisations raising serious concerns about the rise in gender-based violence, child marriage and poverty, fewer protective actors on the ground and limited programmes running.
Humanitarian groups working in Rohingya camps have reported that the pandemic has compounded the already overwhelming sense of insecurity and trauma faced by Rohingya refugees. A 2020 mid-term review of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis by several UN agencies highlighted that the pre-existing risks intensified following the coronavirus breakout, contributing to increases in violence and abusive behaviour, including child labour and juvenile marriages. Owing to the limited humanitarian presence in the camps, the reporting, complaint and accountability mechanisms have also been rendered less effective and functional.
Additionally, owing to the temporary closure of learning centres, community facilities and other safe spaces, risks of abuse against women and children at home have also heightened. With reduced access to services for survivors as well as reporting mechanisms, there has been increased gender-based and transphobic violence against women, girls, sex workers and transgender people. The Covid-19 emergency response has also reportedly diverted the focus from the delivery of essential health services, especially sexual and reproductive health, immunisations and maternal health.
A recent report, Locked In and Locked Out: The Impact of Digital Identity Systems on Rohingya Populations, published in November by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion in association with UN Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume, noted that the Rohingya were being left out of the civil documentation procedures in countries such as India and Bangladesh in order to deny them legal status and thus avoid state responsibility.
Instead of refugees, Bangladesh identifies Rohingya Muslims as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals”. This obstructs the transition to naturalisation and the ability to regularise their legal status, leaving them in permanent danger of being deported to Myanmar or forcefully relocated to distant islands.
Isolating refugees on islands
The plan to resettle refugees on a destitute island follows a similar approach taken by several other countries that have already placed migrants and asylum seekers in enclosed or uninhabited areas. This often further endangers their lives by denying them rights or access to basic amenities and limits their chances of obtaining legal protection from the host nation. Bangladesh’s attempt to segregate refugees in an offshore space, in particular, echoes the Australian immigration scheme that relied on islands such as Nauru and Manus to confine asylum seekers while being processed, with some seemingly stuck there indefinitely.
In September, British home secretary Priti Patel directed officials to look into the possibility of processing asylum seekers on Ascension Island and St Helena – two remote volcanic islands in the South Atlantic. Greece has also planned to build a permanent migrant centre on the Aegean island of Lesbos. It will replace the overcrowded Moria Camp that was destroyed in a fire that left more than 12 000 people sleeping on the street without sanitation or access to food.
In 2018, the Denmark government approved a plan to isolate “unwanted migrants” on Lindholm Island, a small uninhabited island located some 80km south of Copenhagen, but the decision was scrapped by the new Social Democratic government in 2019. In 2016, the then Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, chancellor of Austria since January 2020, suggested that asylum seekers to the European Union should be held on islands rather than be allowed direct access to the continent.