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Bangladesh Relocates Rohingya Refugees to a Remote Island

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The situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has once again taken a turn for the worse with the Bangladesh government's plan to relocate around 100,000 refugees to an isolated flood-prone island called Bhasan Char that emerged from the sea 20 years ago, located 60 km off the coast. The island is made entirely of silt, and can be inundated with a single strike of a cyclone. The government has cited chronic overcrowding as the reason for this move which has been heavily criticized internationally for its shortsightedness and the dangers it poses for an already vulnerable population.


Since 2017 and earlier, more than a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been living deplorable lives in the refugee camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, said to be the largest refugee camp in the world. Here there are no educational facilities; safety measures for women and children are negligible; and neither is sanitation maintained. The camps, moreover, have become dens of crime, human trafficking and have left the powerless refugees even more vulnerable. Yet, these tarpaulin tents remain much safer than the villages they left behind to flee the Myanmar military's systematic attacks, which the UN has termed as "textbook ethnic cleansing".


The Bangladesh government has touted this new arrangement as beneficial for the Rohingyas. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it had spent $350 million for equipping the island of Bhasan Char with all modern amenities and building better infrastructure that can withstand natural disasters far better than the tents of Cox's Bazar. There is also a police station, two hospitals and rooms that can accommodate up to 4 people.


However, there is ambiguity about whether the Rohingyas are being relocated to the island against their will or if they are really in support of this move. Several rights groups and experts, however, have signaled that this could potentially lead to massive human rights violations and mass incarcerations. The New York Times has reported that some of the refugees heading to the island recently had been lured with promises of big houses and fancy amenities. Some simply don't want to go to the remote island because they want to remain closer to their homeland, and don't want to leave their family behind. Moreover, the report also stated that existing refugees at Bhasan Char have been "living in shared barracks with barely enough space to stretch out". Medical facilities also remain scarce.

The UN is still $590m short of its latest funding goal for Rohingya refugees this year [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]


A UN human rights expert told Al Jazeera that 1,642 Rohingya refugees have already been shifted to Bhasan Char before the United Nations could determine whether the island was suitable or not. This independent assessment is necessary to ensure that the Rohingyas were indeed relocated voluntarily and that the island is fit for habitation.


In May, a boat full of refugees traveling from Cox's Bazar to Malaysia was denied entry into the Malaysian coast by the authorities. The Bangladesh coast guard took them back in, but the refugees did not return to the camp at Cox's Bazar. They were taken to Bhasan Char and have been forced to live there since, without any contact with their families who remain in Cox's Bazar. The BBC reported in October that all the 306 refugees living in the remote island at the time had been relocated against their will and are not allowed to leave.


Many Rohingya refugees have been making the immensely difficult 10-day journey to Malaysia for a while now with the hope of a better life and access to job opportunities. For the women and girls making this journey, this ends in marriage with the Rohingya men settled in Malaysia; and unsurprisingly, against their consent. The uptick in human trafficking and child brides among the Rohingyas has been blamed on the lack of security in the camps, low monthly rations and lack of any sources of income. The absence of electricity and lack of proper toilets for women in the camps means that refugees are constantly worried about women and children being sexually assaulted by the Bangladeshi security forces who guard the perimeters of the camp. In this situation, sending off girls to live with their adult husbands in slave-like conditions in Malaysia appears to be a better option for the Rohingyas.


However, it must also be acknowledged that Bangladesh has shown great generosity by providing safe haven to the Rohingyas, but the failure to repatriate the refugees to Myanmar even after 3 years is creating a situation that is untenable. Ultimately, it is the Myanmar government's refusal to acknowledge the genocide against Rohingyas that is to be blamed for the devastation the community continues to go through.

Sanjukta Bose


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