How feasible is Rohingya relocation plan?  

Shahiduzzaman Khan       | Published: April 07, 2018 22:10:51


Although some efforts have been taken both by Bangladesh and Myanmar, no virtual progress is visible on Rohingya repatriation so far. The deal, signed between the two countries on the issue recently, has been of little help.

Observing this at a meeting with the Amnesty International (AI) Secretary General in the city last week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her frustration over the slow pace and dillydallying practices of the repatriation process by the Myanmar government.

Bangladesh has already done the biometric registration of over one million Rohingyas who entered the country amid persecution by Myanmar military. Now it is going for their temporary shelters in a remote island near Hatiya. Relocation of around 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a desolate island off southern coast of Bangladesh in June is in progress although the site is prone to violent weather.

The country has already allocated over Tk 23 billion in project 'Ashrayan-3' to rehabilitate the refugees in Bhashan Char island in Noakhali district. Authorities say shelters for around 50,000 refugees have been constructed at Bhashan Char, a silted strip of land that only emerged from the Bay of Bengal in 2006. The remaining shelters will be completed within two months. The relocation process is expected to begin after completion of all formalities. In the first phase, accommodation for 100,000 people will be made.

The Bangladesh Navy would construct more than 1,440 large shelters to house the refugees by May 31. The Navy is also filling in low-lying areas and building embankments around the entire perimeter to ensure the island can resist tidal flooding and monsoon storms. The country is prone to tropical cyclones and 120 evacuation shelters are also being constructed on the island.

The island is one hour's boat journey from the nearest inhabited land. However, there are warnings that the whole island could be inundated by floods or wiped out by cyclones, which have killed hundreds of thousands along Bangladesh's turbulent coast in the last half-century.

Amid such a probable catastrophe, the plan was shelved but revived in August last as unprecedented waves of refugees poured into the country's southeast, placing enormous strain on the limited resources in the region.

However, local environmental experts say the government's decision to rehabilitate Rohingya refugees in an island of Noakhali will be ill-advised. Many of them called for immediate cancellation of the plan. They say the repatriation deal with Myanmar on one hand and a rehabilitation project, on the other, is problematic.

Such a rehabilitation project will encourage more influx from Myanmar.  If Rohingyas are sheltered in Bangladesh, their demands may increase in future. They may raise demand for education and power supplies. It will really be impossible for the country to repatriate the Rohingyas then as the repatriation deal struck "is a trap sprung" by Myanmar.

The UN refugee agency, which has been helping them since 1992, says such a relocation move would be "logistically challenging".  At high tide the entire island remains under three to four feet (about a metre) of water. But the government said the construction of cyclone shelters, a barrage and a hospital would be enough to 'make the place liveable'.

Analysts say extensive time - likely years -- and work are required, at significant expense, to make the island habitable. The refugees are also concerned about the relocation plan.  They heard no one lives there. Food and drinking water are not readily availably. Amid huge flood risks, how could they live there! They say it is not hospitable for them to live there.

The monsoons bring not only heavy rains that swamp the island, but strong winds that also concern aid agencies. Human Rights Watch has called it a "human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making." There are no roads, let alone cell phone service.

The government should immediately reconsider its plan to transfer Rohingya refugees to an uninhabited, undeveloped coastal island, Human Rights Watch said. Relocating the refugees from the Cox's Bazar area to the island would deprive them of their rights to freedom of movement, livelihood, food and education, in violation of Bangladesh's obligations under international human rights law.

The island, which emerged from river silt deposited in the Bay of Bengal just a decade ago, is now empty and featureless and subject to cyclones and flooding. During monsoon season, the island is submerged; anyone living on the island will have to be evacuated, and most of the infrastructures would be damaged.

Instead of relocating the Rohingyas to a flooded island, the government should be seeking immediate donor support to improve existing conditions for the refugees.  It also needs to treat the persecuted Rohingya humanely, but they shouldn't have to go it alone.

A committee, including government officials from Cox's Bazar, has been established to advance the relocation plans before repatriating the refugees. The committee will help identify the refugees and organise their transfer to the said island, according to reports.

Bangladesh had earlier made two proposals regarding a resolution to the Rohingya crisis. The first is for Myanmar to create a 'safe zone' inside its Rakhine state for the Rohingya people who are facing brutal persecution, and the second is to involve the international community in making Myanmar take back the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

The human rights groups are critical of the government's revised proposal to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island that surfaced only eight years ago. They fear a 'humanitarian catastrophe' which should be avoided by the government.

The government should, in the circumstances, be looking for ways to better protect the Rohingyas rather than coming up with punitive plans that will put their lives at risk. It should also press Myanmar to ensure safety of the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. 

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