Above, a structure being constructed on Bhashan Char island off the Bangladeshi coast to prepare for the relocation of Rohingya refugees in this October 15, 2018 photo. (AFP)
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh managed to secure additional funds at the UN General Assembly to help pay for the upkeep of almost 1 million Rohingya refugees currently being hosted in her country. The biggest donors were the US and Saudi Arabia, with substantial funds also being provided by Turkey, the UK, Sweden and others.
With an estimated cost of almost $900 million per year, it has begun to dawn on Bangladesh that this annual exercise is unsustainable, and with the likelihood of the Rohingya returning to Myanmar looking very bleak, Dhaka will soon have to start footing much of the bill. Hence Hasina also announced a plan to move at least some of the Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazaar to the island of Bhashan Char in the Ganges Delta.
Given the population pressures in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, this seems like a good idea. But Bhashan Char is unstable land emerged from the sea in 2006, it is extremely vulnerable to monsoons, and it will certainly not allow for the development of stable, self-sufficient communities in the long term.
The funding from the UN is supposed to mitigate some of the problems with Bashan Char. For example, it is to help build flood protections and housing capable of withstanding the normal weather extremes in the region.
And the UN’s support for the initiative is conditional on the rights of the Rohingya being respected: All relocation to Bhashan Char is to be voluntary, there is to be humanitarian response infrastructure on the island, and Bangladesh’s government must at all times prior to and after relocation provide all the relevant information on the project to the refugees who take up the offer of relocation.
This all sounds good on paper, but the scope for error, intentional or not, is wide — and the consequences catastrophic. Firstly, this project entrenches Dhaka’s current policy that the Rohingya refugees are to be kept as a population apart. They are to be dumped on just about the only lands in Bangladesh that are uninhabited, and conveniently placed over an hour away by boat from any other human beings.
A future government in Dhaka may choose to turn on a segregated, disenfranchised and vulnerable population for any number of reasons
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The Rohingya will have learnt from their experience in Myanmar that this kind of segregation leaves them vulnerable to changing political winds. They are tolerated for now. A future government in Dhaka may choose to turn on a segregated, disenfranchised and vulnerable population for any number of reasons.
Secondly, there are no guarantees that the infrastructure work funded with UN help will actually make the island habitable and safe. It is not clear that the island will remain above water with any amount of work. Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to the expected rises in sea levels this century, let alone a recently emerged island in the Ganges Delta.
It is unclear what degree of oversight the UN will exercise over the execution of the infrastructure works. Dhaka does not have much incentive to care about the quality and effectiveness of the building projects.
Thirdly, any refugee facilities built on the island will likely never be able to become self-sufficient. The island and its environs are likely never to be able to produce enough food for the numbers of refugees envisioned under the current project. Nor is it obvious how the new communities on the island may develop economically to be able to trade for their food with the Bangladeshi mainland.
In other words, this will be a perennially precarious place to live for the people there, and the communities to be established will remain permanently dependent for funding and food — to say nothing of medical aid, education and so on — on the UN and on the government of Bangladesh. This is not a stable and sustainable solution, not even in the best-case scenario where the island is not swept over by the next natural disaster in the Bay of Bengal.
Nevertheless, supporting this initiative allows the UN to be seen to be supporting the refugees and the government of Bangladesh, even if the end result will be the establishment of refugee communities that are even more isolated, vulnerable and unsustainable than the “tent cities” around Cox’s Bazaar.
There, the refugees have at least some degree of safety in numbers, and they are living on dry land. Bhashan Char may not be as bad as an internment camp in Myanmar, but it is still a serious downgrade for the refugees’ safety and future prospects.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim