The United Nations Refugee Agency is not convinced that Bhasan Char will be a suitable place to relocate the Rohingya refugees from the makeshift camps of Kutupalong and Ukhia in southeastern Bangladesh. The camps are only 36km from the coastal town of Cox's Bazar, the world's longest sea beach and Bangladesh's popular tourist spot.
The UN wants the relocation to be voluntary from the camps. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) spokesman Babar Baloch said in December that the UN is concerned because they did not have involvement in this relocation process. The spokesperson further added that they were unsure of the Rohingyas' willingness to go from Kutaplaong. They were also relying on reports from camps stating that the Rohingyas were feeling pressured to relocate to Bhasan Char.
At present, there are about 864,281 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, a number that is increasing day by day. Myanmar has done little to ensure the repatriation of the persecuted Rohingyas. Back in November 2019 at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi rejected the Rohingya communities' cry for help by refusing to even address them by their name 'Rohingya'. Rather, she addressed them as 'Bengalis', while arguing for her side in the case 'The Gambia v Myanmar' at the ICJ.
At present, the Government of Myanmar is supposed to present documents to the ICJ on the progress of the Rohingyas' repatriation process. The Gambia has already filed a memorial at the court showing how Myanmar is responsible for the genocide of the Rohingyas. Though the ICJ had set a filing deadline of October 23 for the response, an extension has been granted to Myanmar, setting the new filing date at July 23, 2021. There might be more delays like this in the coming future.
Amidst all this, Bangladesh is still in the delicate spot that it once was at the beginning of the Rohingya community's mass exodus from Rakhine, Myanmar. In 2017, after the absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees in a country which already has an alarming population density, overcrowded refugee camps had to be set up hastily. Even CNN reported on the overcrowded state of the Kutupalong camps. But the media is also wary of Bhasan Char's safety because of the fact the UN was not involved in the relocation process.
Bangladesh has been easing into the relocation process.1,684 and 1,804 refugees were relocated to Bashan Char on December 1 and December 28 respectively. Yet, this relocation of approximately 3,400 Rohingyas accounts for a very small percentage of the overall 800,000 refugees in the region. Even if they send 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, how much will it affect the camps' overall population density?
At this moment, Bangladesh is being blamed for relocating the Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char. However, Bhasan Char island has proper housing and roads, which is absent in the camps. Bangladesh has invested USD 350 million into the project to make a home for the persecuted refugees.
Furthermore, in reality, Bangladesh is doing something that has occurred very rarely in a refugee crisis in the past. The relocation of the refugees provides Bangladesh with no solutions but helps it escape the limbo caused by refugees occupying space in an already densely populated country over a long period of time. In doing so, Bangladesh is trying to avoid creating a protracted refugee situation in Cox's Bazar that has happened in states like Iran and Pakistan in the past. These countries have hosted about 2.4 million Afghan refugees for over 40 years. Whole generations have been born, grown up and lived their lives in the same camps.
'A protracted refugee situation', as defined by the UNHCR, is when 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality live in exile for more than five consecutive years in a host country. This state of limbo will have detrimental effects on both Bangladesh and the camps.
This protracted refugee situation can also be seen as a security concern. In Bangladesh, the refugee situation can become more problematic with the spillover of the conflict in the Rakhine state into Bangladesh, through things like the spread of weapons. Host communities such as Bangladesh have to be cautious regarding terrorism and other security concerns that might develop in the camps because of the conflicts in the region. According to the UN, people in protracted refugee situations are often deprived of freedom of movement, land access, and legal employment. Only 317,200 refugees were able to return to their home countries in 2019. Therefore, a large unemployed refugee population could turn into a major threat.
Also, Bangladesh is still a least developed country with 21.8% people living under the poverty line (according to ADB, 2018). A state of limbo or a prolonged crisis would cause this developing country to go through significant cuts in vital public sector spendings in the future. There is an urgent need for cooperation among the UN bodies, government and the camp hosts regarding this issue.
In an interview with The Business Standard Editor Inam Ahmed, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Robert Chatterton Dickson expressed his view on the Bhasan Char relocation. He characterised civil engineering in Bhasan Char as remarkable and noted that the UN had to do two things. One of them was to correctly assess Bhasan Char's safety and secondly carry out a protection mission for the 306 Rohingyas who were in Bhasan Char since May. He stressed the need for a common plan agreed upon by the government, the UN and other international partners. The High commissioner also noted that it would most likely be more costly to help the refugees on an island than in Cox's Bazar camps.
The Rohingya refugees themselves are having a hard time staying in the camps too, and 300 of them became stranded at sea after they had tried to flee to neighbouring Malaysia. These 300 people were the first ones to be relocated to the island.
Moreover, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. As of December 15, 2020, 363 Covid-19 cases were detected in the refugee camps according to the WHO situation Report. The Bhasan Char relocation process will indeed remove some concerns regarding Covid-19 infections since Bhasan Char is less densely populated than the camps. But it should be noted that proper tests and social distancing measures still have to be carried out both on the island and the camps to be sure that neither has superspreaders.
The refugee crisis is indeed complicated, and there is no easy solution to this. But moving towards a proper and well-thought-out plan will mean progress. Repetitive recommendations from the international organisations and false hopes of relocation to Myanmar have not helped out the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh. The relocation to Bhasan Char can be seen as a way out of this limbo, which will be beneficial for both Bangladesh and the Rohingyas.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.