Can we look at Bhashan Char through a research lens?

An aerial view of the buildings intended for accommodating Rohingya refugees at Bhashan Char. File Photo: AFP/Mukta Dinwiddie MacLaren Architects

The third batch of Rohingya refugees entered Bhashan Char on January 29 and January 30, 2021. Out of Cox's Bazar's 867,000 refugees, about 6,700 have now been voluntarily relocated since December 2020 to this island on the Bay of Bengal. While the Government of Bangladesh and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have different point of views on such a move, there are three reasons why we should start doing research on this island and its incoming inhabitants.

First, as the refugee population of this 53-square kilometre island is slowly approaching the 100,000 target, it gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand how an artificially constructed society changes over time and its members interact among themselves and with nature. We rarely get such a large population relocating to one place over a short period of time. The last time that happened was in August and September 2017, when hundreds and thousands of the Rohingya population crossed the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Giving them food and shelter was a priority back then, rather than doing research on their lives and new contexts. But things are quite different on Bhashan Char—well-thought out refugee relocation does open up new research windows and allows us to explore how to improve their circumstances.

Second, in Bangladesh, we hardly see multidisciplinary, long-term research to create knowledge on people, society and nature. With the right facilitation and encouragement from the government, Bhashan Char can excite our researchers, and their funders, from relevant fields to do research—from culture to climate, from education to energy, from mental health to mangroves. This will make Bangladesh a global knowledge leader in refugee crisis management.

Third, given the sensitivity around the refugees and access restrictions on Bhashan Char, any research done there should be endorsed by the government. As a first step, this requires researchers and policymakers discussing this issue—a rare scene in Bangladesh. Such conversations will not only guide us to what research should be done on this island, but also how the research outputs can effectively help the government to make decisions on refugee crisis management. This will create a new avenue of evidence-guided policymaking and practice change in Bangladesh, as envisaged in the Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2021−2041—a roadmap to become a developed country in the next 20 years.

It may be asked if over the last three and a half years, the Rohingya refugee crisis has generated any interest at all among researchers. On March 25, 2020, on the Google Scholar search engine, I found 47 original research articles published since January 1, 2018 on Rohingya refugees staying in Cox's Bazar camps and shared my findings in The Scholarly Kitchen.

On January 25, 2021, I made a similar search and found 54 new journal articles on Bangladesh's Rohingya refugees. So despite the Covid-19 pandemic, over the last 10 months, there has been a 115 percent increase in refugee research outputs. Most of these research papers are on the refugees' current conditions, related political and security concerns, and mental, reproductive and Covid-19 related health issues. The increasing number of research papers clearly shows a growing interest of researchers in this refugee crisis. But we need a system that can make these research findings and recommendations impactful by feeding them into decision-making processes.

To capitalise on the research opportunity Bhashan Char is offering, the government now needs to bring together the relevant research minds of Bangladesh. From a strategic point of view, these research advisors should identify broad thematic research areas and develop a "strategic research framework" to guide research in the Rohingya communities staying on the island. Instead of conducting research in single areas, this framework should encourage multidisciplinary research—where researchers from diverse disciplines work together to bring in their disciplinary knowledge and interdisciplinary research— so that scholars can go a step further and combine their knowledge and methods from different disciplines to conduct research.

For effective use of research outputs and creating impact on the ground, the above research framework should also outline how the research findings could be translated into evidence-based actions, so that concerned government agencies and other stakeholders can take them up and act on them.

From an operational point of view, the government should establish a coordinating body to ensure all proposed research projects are in line with the strategic research framework. Data collected and research outputs communicated by research teams—from public or private institutions, from Bangladesh or abroad—should abide by the rules and regulations of the government. These teams should also maintain high ethical standards and norms of research, keeping in mind the Rohingyas' persecution in their homeland, their statelessness, and possible misuse of their personal information.

The Government of Bangladesh has already invested more than USD 350 million of its own money to build facilities on Bhashan Char; it does not need to commit any more money to support research on it. It is anticipated that the comprehensive research framework will provide a strong basis for interested researchers to apply for domestic and international research funds, since the research outputs are expected to immediately contribute to government decision-making.

Uncertainty is a big concern of the Rohingya refugee crisis. Even if refugee repatriation starts in June 2021, as reported in some media outlets, realistically speaking, it will take time. Whatever data we collect from Bhashan Char will not only be important for the sake of knowledge creation, but also for supporting an evidence-based decision-making system.

In Bangladesh, like in many developing countries, researchers and policy or decision-makers live in separate silos. Researchers often conduct research only as a part of their academic duties—they hardly carry their research findings and recommendations beyond research reports or peer-reviewed academic journals. Similarly, the role of research, new knowledge and evidence is still limited, if there are any, in our policy-decision-making system. Therefore, policy demands and priorities often do not attract the researchers to respond on time. It is very difficult to break these silos, as these are deeply rooted in our structures, systems and minds.

Instead of breaking these silos, let us connect them, so that research demands and research outputs can flow between policymakers and researchers. Despite its remoteness, Bhashan Char can bring these two groups closer, even if on a small scale, even if for a while.


Dr Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems.

His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah


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