The Rohingya refugee crisis is widely known as one of the most urgent humanitarian disasters the global community has faced in recent history. In 2017, a flare-up of violence against Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, Myanmar sparked an exodus of nearly 1 million people fleeing to crowded camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Ever since this initial influx, the government of Bangladesh has constructed multiple resettlement plans for the Rohingya, many of which have been met with denunciation from humanitarian organizations and advocates worldwide. After receiving significant pushback from Rohingya refugees and the international community regarding proposed repatriation initiatives, the government of Bangladesh launched an alternative initiative to transfer thousands of refugees to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal which is vulnerable to a variety of environmental pressures.
Undoubtedly, the large influx of Rohingya refugees into camps within the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh has put an immense amount of strain on host communities and Rohingya families. This being said, the decision of the government to sequester these refugee communities by pursuing risky repatriation and resettlement plans illustrates a wider trend of inadequate funding, public planning, and governmental support for refugee policies that prevail as an important international issue.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnic group that have lived in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (previously known as Burma) for hundreds of years. In 1977, the acting military government instigated Operation Dragon King (Naga Min), in which Rohingya people living in Rakhine State were stripped of their citizenship rights. This initiative was supported by several other laws aimed at disenfranchising the Rohingya by restricting access to employment, healthcare, education, and travel, and subsequently causing one of the biggest crises involving internally-displaced people and refugees in recent history. For decades to follow, the Rohingya continued to be a highly persecuted group with no recognized citizenship status in Myanmar, facilitating an environment in which political violence against these communities was widespread and often government-mandated.
In August 2017, extreme violence in Rakhine State erupted as state security forces and local Buddhist mobs targeted Rohingya communities in retaliation for several attacks on police stations by Rohingya insurgents. Thousands of Rohingya civilians were killed in these retaliatory attacks, and entire villages were burned to the ground. In the first few months of the violence, close to half a million Rohingya are estimated to have crossed into Bangladesh, seeking protection from the scorched earth campaign that the government and security forces instigated against their communities.
Repatriation and Resettlement
At present, there are over 900,000 Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, the majority of whom reside in the Kutupalong refugee camp. Refugees in the camps in this region face a myriad of issues, ranging from inadequate nutrition, the increased spread of disease (which has been especially devastating during the COVID-19 pandemic), and the risk of frequent natural disasters. Seasonal monsoons and cyclones, which are predicted to worsen due to climate change, have repeatedly destroyed the temporary housing set up for Rohingya refugees, leaving these communities entirely vulnerable to the elements. The government of Bangladesh has attempted to address these issues, along with increasing tensions over the socio-economic strain that such large camps have put on local communities, by proposing several repatriation and resettlement initiatives.
In October 2018 the government of Bangladesh came to an agreement with Myanmar regarding the proposed repatriation of Rohingya refugees, in which thousands would be returned to the country where they had experienced severe discrimination and violence. These plans drew condemnation from UN-affiliated aid groups and Rohingya refugees themselves, who argued that without the guarantee of citizenship, justice, and land rights, returning to Myanmar would most likely be a perilous option.
The government of Bangladesh cannot mandate Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar without their consent, as per the international non-refoulement principle under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides that no refugee be expelled against their will and returned to a potentially dangerous territory. Therefore, the government dedicated considerable resources to advancing the transfer of Rohingya refugees from the crowded Cox’s Bazar camps to newly constructed compounds on Bhasan Char island. Given that the island is exceedingly prone to floods and cyclones, many humanitarian agencies have expressed safety concerns for the resettled refugees, and the U.N. has declared that resettlement is only acceptable if the refugees in question have been given clear and comprehensive information necessary to make a voluntary decision.
The Realities of Bhasan Char
Testimony from the several thousand refugees who have been resettled at Bhasan Char since December 2020 suggests that for many, even if the process of moving to the island was voluntary, it was not based on clear information. Photographs of the island’s compounds reveal the clinical, penitentiary-like environment that many Rohingya refugees now call home. Though the Cox’s Bazar camps presented a variety of health and sustainability issues, they also became environments in which Rohingya refugees fostered a strong sense of community solidarity. This social lifeline has been all but severed for those now living on Bhasan Char, who remark on the eerie silence of the island, yearning for the everyday camaraderie of their previous camps, and wishing to escape the emotional turmoil of not knowing if they will ever see their distant family and loved ones again. Such social isolation, along with the constant risk of floods that the island is prone to, poses significant risks for the physical and mental wellbeing of resettled refugees; yet the government of Bangladesh maintains that resettlement to the island is the most feasible option other than repatriation.
At the core of these issues lies the fact that thus far, not a single initiative proposed by the governments of Bangladesh or Myanmar has facilitated any form of agency for the Rohingya refugees themselves. Instead, these governments are operating under the assumption that further displacing these refugees, whether it be to an island or back to a potentially hostile country, is an acceptable bureaucratic solution to an epidemic of overcrowding, underfunding, and inadequate aid supply inside traditional camps. Research has shown that this cycle is actually exacerbated by quick fixes such as the Bhasan Char resettlement plan. Alternatively, investment in adequate education for refugees, re-evaluation of aid plans, and the involvement of refugees themselves in the programming processes may ultimately alleviate the pressure on host and refugee communities that governments around the world continue to reckon with.
The Current Situation
In light of the recent military coup d’etat in Myanmar, the U.N. has predicted that the situation for Rohingya individuals who remain in the country will likely worsen, and human rights advocates have indicated there may be an additional increase in the need for refugee support. Despite the government of Bangladesh’s longstanding commitment to a repatriation plan, returning Rohingya individuals to a country that is currently under siege by its own military is entirely infeasible. Such a plan would put these refugees at extreme risk of violence and death, especially given that a majority of the genocidal acts against the Rohingya in Rakhine State have been carried out by state military and security forces. This situation, along with the proposed resettlement of thousands more Rohingya onto Bhasan Char despite serious humanitarian concerns, highlights the urgent need for an efficient and comprehensive re-evaluation of refugee programming in Bangladesh. Such an undertaking will likely require additional financial and operational support from international organizations and governments to ensure that these refugees receive every possible opportunity to gain the agency, protection, and livelihood which has been out of their hands for far too long.