There are approximately 855,000 Rohingya refugees residing in Bangladesh. The Rohingya have faced statelessness and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for decades, which has led to several waves of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. The largest exodus began in August 2017, as more than 742,000 fled to Bangladesh, the majority of whom sought shelter in Cox’s Bazar. With such an influx of people, the refugee settlements and surrounding areas have become incredibly densely populated, and facilities and services extremely overwhelmed.
In response to this, the Bangladesh government approved a plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal, which has since been transformed into a settlement intended to host 100,000 Rohingya refugees. Yet, following fierce criticism from the international community and Rohingya community leaders, the project was postponed. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the relocation plans back into light, as at the beginning of May, the Bangladesh government began to use the island to quarantine Rohingya refugees rescued at sea. Consequently, this raised considerable concern for the safety of those Rohingya, and discussions over the island’s suitability for relocation have recommenced.
Bhasan Char is a fragile silt island in Hatiya Upazila, Bangladesh. The island, located around 30km from the mainland, emerged in 2006, and is one of several shifting unstable islands in the region. Plans to relocate Rohingya refugees to the region have been discussed since 2015, yet following the major influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh in 2017, the plans were revisited. Subsequently, the government announced the Ashrayan-3 project, to ‘temporarily’ relocate approximately 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char.
Since the plan was approved, following extensive construction and engineering works overseen by the Navy, the island has been drastically transformed, and in January 2020, government officials declared Bhasan Char ready to host 100,000 Rohingya refugees. The facilities constructed reportedly include housing barracks containing community kitchens and bathrooms, along with shelters intended to be used as hospitals, shops, schools and community centres. A rainwater harvesting system, solar power and biogas facilities, cyclone shelters and a flood-protection embankment have also been constructed.
Uncertainty and criticism
The proposal of the project has generated extensive criticism from aid agencies, rights groups and refugees, who have stated that the island is not sustainable for human habitation, and living on the remote island would isolate Rohingya refugees from aid. Concerns have been raised over the island’s vulnerability to environmental hazards, as Bhasan Char is highly prone to erosion, whilst due to its low elevation and geographical location, it is extremely susceptible to flooding, storm surges and cyclones, all of which could be intensified by the effects of climate change. There are also fears over the potentially limited access to education, health services and livelihoods. The medical facilities proposed have been regarded as widely inadequate to cater for the volume of people proposed for relocation, whilst pledges for the provision of livelihood opportunities, such as agriculture and fishing, have been regarded as unclear and unrealistic.
Considering such factors, those relocated to the island could be both geographically and socially isolated. This could be further exacerbated should the government inhibit freedom of movement to and from the island. There have been concerns that refugees may be forcibly relocated, yet government officials have denied this, stating any eventual relocations would be voluntary. Nevertheless, following interviews with Rohingya refugees, right groups have claimed that refugees are not being sufficiently consulted over the plans, and that many have expressed significant fears over being relocated to the island.
A large extent of the uncertainty has been due to a lack of clarity from the government, and lack of access for humanitarian organisations and journalists to the island. The government has only granted limited access to some foreign officials. This included a visit from Yanghee Lee, a UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, in January 2019, who subsequently expressed her concerns over the project’s uncertainties, and warned of a ‘new crisis’ should relocations be inadequately planned. The UNHCR has affirmed that comprehensive and independent assessments must be undertaken before any relocations occur. However, no such assessments have taken place, and at present, there are no protection services provided by the UN or humanitarian organisations working in Cox’s Bazar on Bhasan Char.
COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan
Although various dates were proposed to begin relocating Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, the plans have been postponed, whilst the UN prepares to assess the provisions on the island. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has since brought the relocation plans back into discussion, as the Bangladesh government has started to use Bhasan Char to quarantine Rohingya refugees rescued at sea.
This first occurred on May 2, when 29 Rohingya refugees on a vessel stranded in the Bay of Bengal were transferred to Bhasan Char, whilst government officials confirmed on May 8 that a further 280 Rohingya refugees were sent to the island. Those transferred to the island were reportedly among groups of Rohingya refugees who have spent months stranded at sea after trying to reach Malaysia. Authorities claimed that the transfers were undertaken to prevent a potential coronavirus outbreak in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. However, rights groups called for Bangladesh to suspend the use of the island, reiterating previously stated concerns, whilst the UN urged Bangladesh to move those sent to the island to Cox’s Bazar, stating that preparations were in place for testing and safe quarantine at existing facilities.
In addition to fears over COVID-19, those transferred to the island became further endangered due the island’s vulnerability to cyclones, as the emergence of Cyclone Amphan raised considerable concern for the safety of the newly relocated refugees. The eastern edge of the storm was expected to batter Bhasan Char, prompting further calls for Bangladesh to move the refugees to mainland camps. Yet instead, those on Bhasan Char were transferred to a cyclone shelter on the island. Amphan, which made landfall on May 20, left a trail of destruction and led to the deaths of approximately 26 people in Bangladesh. Thankfully, all Rohingya refugees residing on Bhasan Char were declared safe, which the government attributed to protection provided by dams built around the island. However, since the cyclone, there have been limited reports on the status of the refugees staying on the island, and it has not been made clear if they will be moved to the mainland or if they will remain there.
There is a crucial need to reduce the overcrowding in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, and provide Rohingya refugees with greater access to basic necessities and improved living conditions. Whilst the Bangladesh government has greatly invested in attempting to transform Bhasan Char into a habitable settlement, there are a multitude of uncertainties over the relocation plans. Despite the project being postponed, the recent transfers further demonstrated the government’s urgent desire to utilise the facilities built on the island, and the words of Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister following Cyclone Amphan suggest that the relocation plans are likely to resurface again soon.
However, recent events have also further revealed the concerns and reluctance Rohingya refugees have over the plans, as according to Rohingya community leaders, fears of relocation to Bhasan Char are impacting anti-coronavirus measures being undertaken within camps in Cox’s Bazar. Therefore, it is clear that there is significant disparity between how the relocation plans are viewed by the authorities and by Rohingya refugees. If Bangladesh’s government is to persist with the plans, the uncertainties must be addressed, the UN must assess the provisions on the islands, and thorough consultation with Rohingya refugees must be undertaken.
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