Bangladesh has accommodated more than a million Rohingya refugees at a significant cost to its economy. Nevertheless, it now finds itself subject to international condemnation for relocating some Rohingyas to Bhasan Char — a silt island built up through tidal activity over the last twenty years. Even so, Bangladesh has now relocated 14,032 Rohingyas to Bashan Char in an orderly manner. The UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, Mia Seppo, has recognised the Bangladesh government's investment of USD$350 million to build infrastructure on Bhasan Char, which provides better facilities and infrastructure than those available in the camp at Cox's Bazar.
The move to Bhasan Char is a result of a confluence of factors. The recent military coup has made the repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar almost impossible. Moreover, the devastating fire that broke out in Cox's Bazar on 22 March 2021, which killed fifteen and left 400 still missing, has graphically demonstrated the precariousness of the living conditions of the Rohingya. They are not safe in the camps or in Myanmar, and without means for ensuring a decent and dignified life for themselves, the Rohingyas' future seems very bleak.
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According to our research, an estimated 25,000 people were killed, 19,000 were raped, and 43,000 received gunshot wounds inflicted by security forces under the control of the Myanmar authorities during the Rohingyas' mass exodus to Bangladesh in 2017. Since then, multiple repatriation attempts have failed due to an uncooperative Myanmar government. The Myanmar security forces have now turned their weapons on their own people, killing nearly 538 civilian protesters since the coup on 1 February 2021.
The military junta has written to the Bangladesh government attempting to explain the takeover; it claims that it has "reached out to Rohingyas in Rakhine state, giving Rohingyas confidence for return." Paradoxically, Bangladesh must welcome this letter, for it consistently has reported to have not received any cooperation from the Myanmar government since the first Rohingya repatriation deal was signed on 23 November 2017. But given the fact that it was the military itself which was the perpetrator of the genocidal actions against the Rohingya in the first place, it is reasonable to suspect that the letter is an attempt to deflect criticism levelled against the coup rather than a good faith attempt to assure Rohingyas or multilateral agencies of a safe return.
It is in this context, we believe, that the resettlement of Rohingya to Bhasan Char must be considered. The international condemnation of Bangladesh for their decision to relocate the Rohingya comes despite the international community largely ignoring the plight of both the refugees and Bangladesh — satisfying itself instead with relatively meagre donations, which are themselves drying up due to the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. No country has offered to accept a single refugee from Cox's Bazar or applied effective pressure on Myanmar to accept returned refugees in a safe and humanitarian way. Meanwhile, the refugee camps have become the most densely populated areas in the world, causing environmental degradation and posing significant health and security risks for Bangladesh and the region.
The housing complex of Bhasan Char island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees are being relocated. (Photo by K.M. Asad / LightRocket via Getty Images)
In early 2020, we interviewed a sample of 3,613 household heads located in the Cox's Bazar camp about their perspectives on temporary resettlement to Bhasan Char. 8.9 per cent responding that they would be prepared to move, compared to the 91.1 per cent recorded as not willing to move to Bhasan Char. Nevertheless, despite being such a low percentage, 8.9 per cent would be sufficient to meet Bangladesh's target of relocating 100,000 Rohingyas. Among the reasons provided by the questionnaire as potential motivations for the respondents to relocate to Bhasan Char, 87.7 per cent selected better housing, 62.2 per cent family safety, 60.1 freedom of movement, 48.7 better food supply, and 33.3 per cent wanted to avoid exploitation by local people.
By contrast, 67.5 per cent of the respondents who were unwilling to relocate responded that they were concerned about Bhasan Char's climate risk and 64.2 per cent had some concern about the location of the island "in the middle of nowhere". The second most common response, at 64.4 per cent, was the availability of "economic opportunity in the current camp". There are around 10,000 illegal shops in the Cox's Bazar providing Myanmar produce to a significant black market without any license or taxes going back to the government of Bangladesh. Moving the population to Bhasan Char will make it easier for authorities to limit this illegal activity and to enhance local commerce.
Importantly, 28.6 per cent of respondents had been urged not to relocate to Bhasan Char by other Rohingyas, Rohingya militia groups, influential locals; 14.2 per cent said that they had been influenced to remain by NGOs operating in the camps. One must not discount the possibility of an "unholy alliance" between local businesses (drug dealers, human traffickers, money launderers) and NGOs benefiting from the crisis. Additionally, 59.4 per cent of the respondents raised concerns about losing social contacts if they left the world's largest refugee camp and relocated to a smaller community.
Rohingya refugees at the housing complex of Bhasan Char island after they were relocated on 30 December 2020. (Photo by Mohammad Al-Masum Molla / AFP via Getty Images
The Bhasan Char initiative has the potential to become an alternative model for states accommodating unprecedented and unanticipated refugees seeking short- or longer-term temporary security. The ambiguity pertaining to when and how the Rohingya refugees can or will return to Myanmar suggests the need for new ways of caring for refugees. States are called upon to maintain their well-being for an extended time while creating alternative employment opportunities and structured services tailored to the needs of those refugees. States must, therefore, recognise the benefits in such courses of action. The displacement of persons is a global reality. Climate change, food shortages, global poverty, and associated political instability increase the likelihood that people will be forced to make unanticipated temporary movements of varying duration and of varying distances. Host societies face added difficulties — such as COVID-19 — in ensuring the welfare of these temporary, but perhaps long-term, migrants.
Compared with the developed world, Bangladesh has many fewer resources to deal with such difficulties. In the circumstances, a different reading of the Bhasan Char initiative may be appropriate — a reading that acknowledges the pressures, tensions, and complexity of the situation underpinning Bangladesh's attempts to improve the livelihood of those refugees now experiencing the many social problems associated with overcrowded refugee camps. In the post-COVID environment, the world will turn its attention to the economic recovery of domestic economies. This focus is likely to diminish further the support for Bangladesh, which is suffering from failure-fatigue after three unsuccessful repatriation attempts. Pledged donations to assist Bangladesh with the situation in Cox's Bazaar are likely to decline even further. Such an outcome will exacerbate the pressure on Bangladesh, diverting global attention from the Rohingya crisis and the urgent need to share responsibility to relieve the worsening situations of forced migration and to forge solutions through collaborative and global initiatives.
Given this confluence of factors, Bangladesh's attempt to innovate and improve the well-being of displaced persons arriving on its soil may deserve more favourable — or, at least, sympathetic — global consideration.
Mohshin Habib is Adjunct Professor at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada, and Adjunct Fellow at Western Sydney University.
Christine Jubb is Professor of Accounting at Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology.
Henri Pallard is Professor of Law and Justice at Laurentian University, Ontario, Canada.
Zakir Morshed teaches in the Department of Business Administration at Torrens University Australia.