The United Nations is making plans to help Bangladesh relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladeshi camps to a barren, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, a move opposed by many refugees and that some human rights experts fear could spark a new crisis.
A document drawn up by the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN’s food aid arm, shows the agency has supplied the Bangladesh government with detailed plans – including a timeline and budget – of how it could provide for thousands of Rohingya transported to the island within weeks.
In January, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, raised her concerns after an on-site visit to the island. “There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable,” she said.
Bangladesh says transporting refugees to Bhasan Char – an island hours by boat from the mainland – will ease chronic overcrowding in its camps at Cox’s Bazar, which are home to more than 1 million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighboring Myanmar after a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military in August 2017. UN investigators said the crackdown had been conducted with “genocidal intent” and prompted some 730,000 Rohingya to flee their homes.
Bhasan Char, a flat and featureless island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago, has never been inhabited and human rights groups have criticised the relocation proposal, saying the island is flood-prone, vulnerable to frequent cyclones and could be completely submerged during a high tide.
“What the hell is the WFP thinking? Bangladesh’s plan to move Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char looks like a human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making so UN agencies should be talking about how to stop this ill-considered scheme, not facilitate it,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told The Telegraph.
Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights, said that instead of emphasising that relocations should be voluntary, the UN’s core position should be that the island was a “terrible” idea.
“The UN has a long history of failing the Rohingya and it’s happening again. Bhasan Char should be off the table. It’s an ill-conceived proposal that’s sure to lead to more human rights violations,” Smith told The Telegraph.
Multiple reports have confirmed that Rohingya refugees fear isolation from their communities and the inability to make a living on the island.
“The reality is the Rohingya don’t want that one-way ticket to Bhasan Char because it promises to be a Rohingya Alcatraz, with freedom of movement restricted, health and other services limited, and no guarantees of survival if a typhoon hits and submerges the island,” Robertson said. “For people who have suffered so much and lost everything at the hands of the brutal Myanmar military, their camp communities are the only remaining support system they have left.”
On 21 March, a poem by a Rohingya refugee titled “Do Not Send Me to the Island” was posted to social media. “I’m a human being, I deserve all human rights,” it read.
“You know, we are refugees, surviving in refugee camp for two years,” the author of the poem, 22-year-old Mohammed Rezuwan, told Reuters in a message. “Still we are tolerating so much tragedies.”
Since late August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma’s Rakhine State to escape the military’s large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities committed by Burmese security forces, including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount to crimes against humanity. Military and civilian officials have repeatedly denied that security forces committed abuses during the operations, claims which are contradicted by extensive evidence and witness accounts.
The Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and repression under successive Burmese governments. Effectively denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, they are one of the largest stateless populations in the world. Restrictions on movement and lack of access to basic health care have led to dire humanitarian conditions for those displaced by earlier waves of violence in 2012 and 2016
IOHR correspondent Trish Lynch interviewed Ashish Joshi, a SkyNews reporter who had just returned from covering the Rohingya massacres in February 2018 and the interview can be watched on TOHR TV and below: