With the focus squarely on the refugees in Ukraine, I hope the world does not forget the plight of 10 lakh Rohingya refugees and its host country Bangladesh. Nevertheless, its approach towards Bangladesh needs a reset, along with some lessons for future protracted crises.
Born in Bangladesh two years after the 1971 Liberation War, I grew up hearing stories of the queues of displaced people that lined the borders between India and what had been East Pakistan. Bangladesh’s responsiveness to the needs of displaced people has been long-standing. In 2017, I witnessed first-hand a population the size of the city of San Francisco flee from genocide in Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh in four weeks.
I was shocked as I watched sick, homeless, and severely traumatised people try to adapt to living in overwhelmed, temporary facilities. As a Bangladeshi, I was proud to see my country giving refuge to every single one of them. Now, after almost five years, Bangladesh is still hosting the largest refugee camp in the world, but it has gotten caught in controversy about relocating some of the Rohingya to an island, which has shifted the focus from where it should be.
That raises a dilemma for Bangladesh and the long-term health of this response and requires the world to rethink the way it is approaching the Rohingya crisis from a much wider lens. This is not a Bangladeshi crisis, it is a regional one.
In the intervening five years since the influx, repatriation talks have had no traction. The visible efforts by the superpowers in moving the repatriation agenda have winded down. In the meantime, the national mood in Bangladesh towards the Rohingya has become more hostile.
The security situation in the camps has deteriorated. The government, which initially was more willing to let the UN and NGO responders make decisions, has increasingly seen that it must take a more defining role.
Cox’s Bazar, the district that hosts the settlements, is strategically important to the nation’s economy and has its own needs. It is one of the poorest districts in Bangladesh, and at present, the settlements outnumber the local population by 3:1.
The government chose to move a small group (less than 5%) of the Rohingya to a riverine island, which attracted a disproportionate amount of international media coverage over the last two years.
Some initial clumsiness in the move was compounded by human rights organisations sceptical of the motives of moving any displaced people, even, in this case, to better conditions. The chatter in the policy and activism circles and international media became loud and so uneven, it would give the impression Bangladesh is perpetrating a far bigger crime than Myanmar.
The result of all this has been a policy limbo, with the Rohingya caught in the middle. It has become a binary conversation – to move or not to move – with the international donor community hesitant to support the government’s action. The government has spent over $350 million on infrastructure on the island, building housing, schools, community centres and embankments to protect it from natural disasters.
The investment, however, will not benefit the Rohingya, unless the international community invests in livelihoods, education and health care programming. The longer investment is delayed, the longer the Rohingya are stuck in this limbo, and the less likely they are likely to move, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, Japan has stepped up. Now, we need the West to come forward.
Narrative vs reality
Bangladesh, which previously received global accolades for hosting the largest refugee camp in the world, has been cornered and vilified internationally for coming up with a solution to managing a population whom no other country in the world is willing to take. What is actually happening on Bhasan Char, the island?
A handful of local NGOs are carrying out limited activities along with administrative support from the government and the navy. In our case, we are funding some initial activities in education, nutrition and livelihoods. But much more is needed and only can happen when the Western grants are unlocked.
Conversations with various representatives of the Rohingya community highlighted their preference for Bhasan Char, provided that there is work, education, healthcare, and freedom to visit their relatives in Cox’s Bazar.
The security and living conditions are actually better in Bhasan Char. Those who have been there know that, rather than being an isolated prison island as it has been portrayed by international media, it is just a 45-minute ferry ride from Noakhali, a district home to 30 lakh people. During the dry season, one can often walk to nearby Hatia, another island home to almost 5 lakh people.
On the cusp of the fifth anniversary of the influx, besides focusing on repatriation, we should be talking about mid-term responses like broadening education and skill development and creating sustainable and dignified living conditions.
As long as the debate centres on the use of the island, it pushes the conversations we actually need to be having off the table. Bhasan Char continues to be a distraction that is harmful to the broader response.
Increasingly, between this push and pull between international donors and the Bangladesh government, the situation is becoming untenable and uncertain which is reflecting on the larger worsening security situation. Should there be a prolonged deadlock and destabilisation, it may impact larger regional security, affecting India, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
With proper investment in basic services and a livelihood plan, Bhasan Char can be a place where the Rohingya can transform their lives. We, the national NGOs with experience in working in such conditions, know this.
Living on a riverine island, known locally as a char, is common here and there are many examples of creating sustainable livelihood opportunities. And this char, unlike any other, has an embankment and significant protections established to protect the island from rising seawater.
I cannot think of another country that has done anything of this scale, with its $350 million in investment for the Rohingya, in the recent past. I can’t think of a better country more equipped, with a strong grassroots national NGO network that can complement this work by creating livelihood opportunities. This will also be a great test of the humanitarian actors’ commitment to localisation made as part of the “Grand Bargain” pledge in 2016.
The dominant narrative needs to change. The international chatter so far has been one dimensional and not in sync with what is happening in real-time on the ground. Bangladesh should also get its fair share of credit for regional stability for housing 10 lakh displaced people.
The call for repatriation to Myanmar by the international community needs to be stronger, visible, and frequent. The government of Bangladesh must continue to ensure consistently that any transfers are voluntary. Any sustainable solution must recognise the local and national context.
There is no international law that prevents the government of Bangladesh from relocating the Rohingya. However, their freedom to visit their relatives in the camps should be ensured and reports from the ground say that issue is already being addressed.
One thing for sure is that we need to move forward. The conversation needs to be on the overall well-being of the entire Rohingya population and their safe repatriation and a mid-term plan for a dignified, sustainable living within the larger national context of Bangladesh. This is only possible if we all display the leadership and courage to acknowledge the complexity of the situation and seek a holistic approach together rather than taking a territorial and black and white view.
We owe that to the most persecuted minority in the world.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.