The Rohingya relocation dilemma
The concerns and uncertainties over the relocation of some Rohingya refugees to Bashan Char are showing no signs of easing. The donor agencies and international bodies are concerned about the sustainability of the project to move one lakh Rohingya refugees to the island on the Bay of Bengal. Their concerns are not without reason, nor are the compulsions of the host country.
One of the main concerns is that the very name of the 40 square kilometre island rings ominous—"Bashan" translating literally to "floating". The silt-based island has emerged only over the last two decades in the estuary of the Meghna River, and Bangladesh standing at the front line in the fight against climate change—making the island more prone to extreme weather events like cyclones—doesn't help its cause either.
But a nine-foot high embankment has been erected along the perimeter of the island to protect it from tidal surges. Pylons, gravel and sandbags have also been used to protect the island from erosion. And then there are the 120 cyclone shelters that can endure wind speed up to 260km per hour—the maximum wind speed of the Cyclone Sidr, the "Very Severe Cyclonic Storm" that hit Bangladesh in November 2007.
Another concern voiced by the international community is that moving to this island might potentially restrict the mobility of the Rohingya. The sheer distance of the island and the restrictions that have already been imposed on the Rohingya living in camps in Cox's Bazar—out of genuine concerns—have only added to the fear of the people that once the Rohingya refugees are sent to the Bashan Char they will not be allowed to come back to the mainland.
The concerns of the donors and rights groups, one must acknowledge, have partly been driven by the perceived lack of transparency surrounding the project. In order to address such concerns, the government has to make the living conditions in Bashan Char clear to the world. Building a wall of secrecy around this will only lead to further negative speculations about the project.
The government's decision to allow UN officials to visit Bashan Char is a much welcomed one. Earlier this year, a UN team visited the island, and another visit is scheduled to take place on November 17. It is also important that the government allows local media outlets to visit the island to see for themselves and to show the world the living conditions in Bashan Char.
The government has disclosed the facilities—cyclone shelters, hospitals, educational institutions, playgrounds, rainwater harvesting system, solar power, biogas facilities, etc.—the island will offer to its inhabitants, but it is yet to make clear the issue of the rights of the Rohingya once they have been transported to the island: are they going to be afforded freedom of movement?
Once relocated to Bashan Char, according to the government, the refugees will have some "economic activities"—what those activities are must be elaborated by the concerned authorities before the relocation takes place. The government also needs to clearly outline the humanitarian aid logistics in Bashan Char—the modality of transporting humanitarian aid, the access of the international agencies to the island and its inhabitants, and so on.
The challenges ahead of the government are manifold. It will not be an easy task relocating one lakh Rohingya population to the island, with the possibility of extending the project to accommodate another 400,000 Rohingya in the future, as suggested by one of the architects involved, Ahmed Mukta. However, with transparency and collaboration, the concerns of the agencies will be addressed and it will become easier to overcome these hurdles.
The international bodies questioning the government's plan to relocate the Rohingya must understand that in the face of increasing tension among the locals in Cox's Bazar, and a steadily increasing Rohingya population—according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 91,000 children were born inside the Rohingya camps between August 2017-2019—it is becoming increasingly difficult for the government and local administration to accommodate the Rohingya in the camps.
The country has already had to deforest land in order to shelter the refugees. According to a UNDP report, almost 4,300 acres of hills and forests were levelled in Ukhia and Teknaf alone, to make room for temporary accommodation and arrange cooking fuel for the Rohingya.
And this poses another problem: such indiscriminate deforestation and exfoliation also exponentially increase the risk of landslides, making the refugees and the locals more vulnerable to large-scale disasters.
Waning donor support—Bangladesh, as of October 2019, received only 60 percent of the requested USD 920 million required to provide for the Rohingya—is also making the situation difficult for the country. The Bangladesh government is under increasing pressure to foot the bill for sheltering the helpless refugees. WFP figures suggest that it takes nearly USD 800,000 to feed over a million refugees a day. And with decreasing aid, for how long would Bangladesh be able to bear this expense?
Under such circumstances, what alternative does Bangladesh have other than finding sustainable long-term solutions to accommodate the population of 1.1 million—especially since there is no sign that Myanmar will take them back anytime soon? While the international community is busy questioning the feasibility of the relocation plan to the "floating island", it is Bangladesh that is having to bear the cost of providing protection to 1.1 million people from genocide, that the international community has failed to take action against.
Any relocation of the Rohingya that is voluntary and done "in accordance with humanitarian principles and code of conduct" should be welcomed by all. Bashan Char certainly has its cons, but it is not devoid of pros either. More importantly, as of right now, it is the only solution on the table.
Instead of moving towards a stalemate we urge the donor agencies and the international community to take a serious and objective look at what Bangladesh is offering and simultaneously request our government to be more transparent about the whole process to gather wide support to tackle a humanitarian crisis that Bangladesh has done its utmost to handle so far.
Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem