refugee crisis

Banishing refugees to a flood-prone island will not solve Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee crisis

The idea of relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote flood-prone island would set a bad precedent for managing human rights crises.

Hundreds of hard-line Buddhist monks in Myanmar protested on March 19 against a proposal to grant citizenship to the country’s persecuted Muslim minority, the Rohingya who are excluded from the Citizenship law of 1982.

The demonstrations came after the Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by former UN chief Kofi Annan, urged Myanmar’s government to reconsider the ethnic group’s legal status. The government actually does not recognise the existence of Rohingya and rather considers them as Bengali.

Stripped of their basic rights, community members have been submitted to extreme violence and atrocities in Myanmar. More than 87,000 people have been displaced since October. For years now, many have fled to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, where they live a life in limbo.

State counsellor Aung Saan Suu Kyi has thus far remained silent on the issue.

Rohingya refugees return to their makeshift home at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. ( Photo credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters )
Rohingya refugees return to their makeshift home at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. ( Photo credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters )

Bangladesh has some 32,000 registered refugees in two official camps located mainly in the Cox’s Bazar district bordering the eastern Rakhine State. An additional 200,000 to 500,000 unregistered refugees live in makeshift camps there, alongside locals.

Having faced a continuous flow of Rohingya refugees for over two decades, the Bangladesh government is now planning to relocate the refugees to a remote island in Noakhali district, Thengar Char, about 250 km northwest of current camps.

The government says the move would improve refugees’ access to humanitarian assistance. But Rohingya refugees reportedly oppose the plan, and human rights groups have urged the government to cancel the plan, which the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network has declared to be “dangerous, absurd and inhumane”. Rights groups argue that the island is uninhabitable: it rose from the sea only 11 years ago and is highly prone to flooding and cyclones.

Source: Reuters.
Source: Reuters.

Local integration

The Bangladeshi people of Cox’s Bazar and the Rohingya refugees share a common dialect and culture. As a result, law enforcement forces cannot always differentiate between refugees and locals. Despite restrictions on their ability to work, many refugees find employment in the informal sector, and some children go to local schools. The government has reluctantly allowed the refugees to stay so far, but it is clearly concerned that such opportunities will lead to integration.

Thengar Char is a remote island in the most literal sense. The nearest sub-district office, Hatiya, is two hours away by boat. The surrounding areas are poor and underdeveloped.

For the government, it is easier to manage a refugee population that is concentrated on Thengar Char. Locals there do not speak the same dialect as Rohingyas, decreasing the potential for integration. It will also be practically impossible for them to seek employment and education outside the camp.

Challenges for humanitarian agencies

But the relocation would also make it very difficult for the UNHCR/UN Refugee Agency International Organisation for Migration and local NGOs to provide humanitarian services. Currently, agencies are mainly based in Cox’s Bazar, a popular Bangladeshi tourist destination with the longest sea-beach in the world. It is well connected to Bangladesh and other parts of the world by land and air and offers staff the comforts of living in a city, including basic facilities and security.

Ukranian tourists attract the attention of locals on Cox’s Bazar beach.( Photo credit: Matt Zanon / Wikimedia, CC BY-ND )
Ukranian tourists attract the attention of locals on Cox’s Bazar beach.( Photo credit: Matt Zanon / Wikimedia, CC BY-ND )

Thengar Char, on the other hand, is an exceptional place in overpopulated Bangladesh: it has no human settlement. Villagers who live nearby complain of pirates roaming the nearby waters, stealing goods and holding people hostage. The area’s security risks and remoteness may discourage humanitarian agency staffers from relocating there.

Possibilities of a human catastrophe

The Bangladesh forest department has warned that the Thengar Char island is not yet suitable for human habitation, writing in a letter that:

The soil and environment of Thengar Char is not yet suitable for human settlement. The island is submerged in water during monsoon. Though it emerges during dry season, most of the island goes under water at high tide.

Cyclone are of significant concern. According to a catalogue of tropical storms in Bangladesh, 193 cyclones struck the country between 1484 and 2009. Arguably the deadliest tropical cyclone in history hit the region in 1970, battering the coast with a six-metre storm surge and killing some 300,000 people. If even a small-scale cyclone hits the proposed Rohingya camp, a human catastrophe is nearly certain.

The Noakhali district administration has written that the government would also have to “build flood protection embankment, cyclone centres and necessary infrastructure and ensure supply of drinking water” before receiving the Rohingyas in the Thengar Char.

Lost connections

For the Rohingyas, current border camps in Cox’s Bazar are close to home not just culturally but also geographically. For some, crossing into Bangladesh is as easy as wading through a little creek on foot or taking a short boat trip.

When Myanmar erupts in violence, many Rohingyas seek safety in Bangladesh, and, when it ends, some of them head back home. There is usually no asylum application, refugee-status determination procedure or UN-assisted voluntary repatriation; registration was last done in 1992. The country’s hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya migrants live in limbo, as Bangladesh lacks specific refugee laws.

Rohingya fishermen near a refugee camp in Teknaf, 2011. ( Photo credit: Andrew Biraj / Reuters )
Rohingya fishermen near a refugee camp in Teknaf, 2011. ( Photo credit: Andrew Biraj / Reuters )

During relative peace, many Rohingyas also cross the border to seek medical treatment, education, marriage, daily shopping trips, or to visit relatives. Some will embark on a secondary migration, heading to Saudi Arabia or Malaysia. Many of these practices likely violate Bangladeshi law, but they are locally accepted and have been going on for generations.

Newly arrived refugees or migrants often get shelter and other assistance from relatives already living in Bangladesh’s camps. Many refugees in the camp also act as bridge between Rohingyas living in Myanmar and the diaspora of approximately one million others who live around the world.

Indirect force for repatriation?

Bangladesh has been negotiating with Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingyas. Many Rohingyas in Bangladesh have expressed their willingness to go back to their homeland if state authorities can ensure their safety.

However, the risk of persecution and violence in Myanmar remains high, and most refugees do not consider it safe there. International law requires that the Bangladeshi government only send back refugees who would voluntarily repatriate.

If the alternative to life in Myanmar is banishment to Thengar Char, many Rohingyas might “agree” to return rather than face a dangerous and uncertain future on a remote island of Bangladesh.

Ashraful Azad, Assistant professor, International Relations, University of Chittagong

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.