BY LOUIS BAUDOIN-LAARMAN
For the past two months the Rohingya refugee community in Bangladesh has been anxious and unsettled after the country’s prime minister restated Bangladesh’s intention to relocate the refugees to the barren 30,000-hectare island of Thengar Char in the Bay of Bengal.
With little more than a few bushes and tall grasses growing over an accumulation of sediments that only rose above sea level in 2006, Thengar Char is ill-suited for human habitation. The island is prone to flooding during the monsoon season, when heavy rains effectively submerge the island from June to September. Worse, the island has no existing infrastructure or housing.
Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world, but when the government considered developing Thengar Char for its own citizens, the idea was abandoned when it turned out that the ground was too soft to support any lasting, sturdy structures.
The idea of forcing Rohingyas onto an island is not new, having been first suggested in 2015 by the same government. The Rohingyas, Muslims from neighboring Myanmar, where they are harassed and not recognized as citizens, have been coming in waves through the open border since the 1970s. The last big wave dates was in October 2016, when violence against the Rohingya increased following the killing of nine Myanmar border guards in Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh and is where most Myanmar Rohingyas come from.
Sixty-five thousand Rohingyas have fled since, adding themselves to the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, only 32,000 of whom are officially registered as refugees by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. In Myanmar, Rohingyas have faced decades of institutional and civil harassment and are considered stateless and illegal. Human rights groups have reported that those staying face summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and mass rapes.
After escaping to Bangladesh from persecution, Rohingyas now face the threat of another forced relocation. “To forcibly move refugees who are fleeing ethnic cleansing is truly unacceptable and certain to only prolong misery and suffering for an already traumatized population who had no choice but to flee their homes,” says Lilianne Fan, deputy chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a web of several hundred NGOs working in the region.
One reason behind the Bangladeshi government’s decision to relocate the Rohingyas, who are classified as temporary residents, is to keep them from “mixing with the locals,” as the January order reads. Too late for that, according to Kazi Fahmida Farzana, a senior lecturer at the University Utara Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, who has written extensively on the Rohingya in Bangladesh. “Local integration is something that happened naturally over a period of time because these so-called ‘temporary settlements’ are now more than two decades old, and the government cannot stop that from happening.”
In the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, a city near the Myanmar border, where the majority of Rohingyas have settled, Rohingyas and locals have been mingling for a long time. Like the Palestinians in Lebanon, there are now second and third generation Bangladesh-born Rohingyas who have inevitably adapted to their place of birth. In fact, Rohingyas on both sides of the border used to live with ethnic Rakhins in the Arakan Kingdom that was split up between Burma and Bangladesh in the late 17th century. According to Andrew Day, an American citizen who has worked independently with refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the only thing that has changed for the Rohingyas “is just that now nobody wants them because they’re in a situation where they lost all their land and money so they’re not worth anything to anybody.”
And indeed the Rohingyas don’t seem to be welcome anywhere. Classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982 by Myanmar, where they make up less than two percent of the population, only a handful of them are recognized as refugees in Bangladesh and even the third generation born in Bangladesh does not have citizenship. This leads to constant uncertainty among the Rohingya regarding their own future. Beyond the fact that states try to unload the responsibility of the Rohingya onto one another, plans for Rohingyas within one country regularly change. “The Bangladesh government has this common practice of relocating refugees from one side to another within the camps,” says Farzana. Despite their high numbers on both sides of the border, it is generally not safe for Rohingyas to identify themselves as such outside of their communities or refugee camps because of civil and institutionalized discrimination.
Although the details of the plan are still very hazy — who would pay for it, which Rohingyas would be relocated there — the fact that the plan is being brought up again shows the government’s resolve regarding Rohingya relocation. Even then, the plan is not considered viable or realistic by most accounts. First, because the government already lacks funding to take proper care of the 32,000 registered Rohingyas, and hopes to raise funds internationally where disapproval of the plan is likely. Second, because even in the event of the relocation plan materializing, many Rohingyas would likely flee from Cox’s Bazar to other cities in Bangladesh or abroad. Lastly, even the government’s own agencies in the Noakhali district, of which Thengar Char depends, have found the island uninhabitable. Instead, the district’s Forestry department has even suggested an alternative in a letter to the government: “Ghashiar Char is fit for human habitation. It has 500 acres of forest land and two government housing projects are in progress on the island.”
Julia Mayerhofer, secretary general of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, thinks that the Bangladeshi government should have refrained from saying it considered the relocation of Rohingyas to the island in the first place. “I think the statement in itself is quite problematic,” she says. “We do take it seriously to some extent, but having said that it’s not the first time that this happens.”
There have been reports of Rohingyas organizing rallies within their camps at Cox’s Bazar, but without citizenship and being a stigmatized minority, it is hard for them to make their voices heard. Visibility for the Rohingya cause is made particularly difficult by the fact that NGOs and media have very limited access to the unofficial camps where the majority of Rohingyas live, according to Andrew Day, the American who works with Rohingya refugees. Even in Kutupalong and Nayapara, the two official camps where the UN is in charge of distributing basic humanitarian aid and primary education since 1992, logistics prove tricky when it comes to redistributing food and medicine to the 32,000 Rohingyas living there.
Despite difficulties in organizing the community, Mohammed Imran, the credentialed former leader of the Kutupalong camp, wrote a letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hazina Wazed to show his community’s concern. The letter, published February 19, gives a detailed criticism of the relocation plan and urges the the government to abandon it. “Knowing that moving refugees to Hatiya [the administrative name of Thengar Char] will put their lives in physical danger makes this plan unjust,” the letter reads. “No doubt the idea is to keep them from ever leaving the island, pending some sort of unlikely repatriation to Myanmar.”
For now, the government has not responded to the letter nor brought up clarifications regarding its plan, leaving the Rohingyas yet again in suspense over their destiny.