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On October 21st, the Government of Bangladesh announced that it planned to evacuate a hundred thousand Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, as a measure to ease overcrowding of refugee camps established in the vicinity of Cox’s Bazar, the Boston Globe reported on Tuesday. The placement of the refugees on Bhasan Char is concerning to many though, as it is prone to flooding during the monsoon season. The Muslim Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, after hundreds had been killed and thousands more displaced by ethnic violence perpetrated by the military and Buddhist extremists.
The Chief of Bangladesh’s Relief and Repatriation Commission, Mahbub Alam Talukder, stated that his commission plans to “start the relocation by early next month,” and that his officials “are compiling lists of the refugees that want to move there,” in an interview with the Japan Times. According to the Telegraph, one of these Rohingya refugees, father of four Nur Hossain, stated that he had agreed to relocate to Bhasan Char, as “the camp is very overcrowded. There are food and housing problems.” However, Acting Assistant Secretary Alice G. Wells of the U.S. Bureau of South and Central Asia called on Bangladesh to delay the move, stating that it should be postponed pending confirmation that Bhasan Char is a suitable location. According to All India Radio, Wells went on to call upon Myanmar to “create conditions for the Rohingya’s voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation and guarantee their rights as recommended by the Annan Commission.”
Bangladesh’s moves in taking in and providing temporary settlement for the Rohingya, who have been rejected by their own country, was admirable, despite the strain the settlement put upon Bangladesh’s infrastructure. However, the move of said refugees toward such a potentially unsafe locale raises serious questions over their commitment to humane treatment. The government will need to be vigilant to address the concerns of the people moving to Bhasan Char, in terms of safety against cyclones, and the flow of food, and drinking water, among other necessities. Additionally, Bangladesh as a nation needs to take a stronger stance in pressuring the government of Myanmar to accept the presence and citizenship of the Rohingya within their country.
The Rohingya are a primarily Muslim ethnic group that has lived for generations in the land that would one day become Myanmar, most of them within the southwestern state of Rakhine. According to the BBC, the Rohingya claim to be the descendants of Arab traders that landed in the region centuries ago. Their Muslim faith, as well as their independent culture and language, has put them at odds with the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Hardliners within Myanmar believe that the Rohingya are simply illegal immigrants from neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh. To this end, the military government instituted the Citizenship Law of 1982, which barred the Rohingya from citizenship, and barring them by extension from much-needed health and infrastructure services, according to Human Rights Watch. Starting in the 1990s, the government began carrying out campaigns of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. 2017 saw the latest round of these actions, with over six thousand Rohingya being killed, including hundreds of children, at the hands of the military and mobs of militant Buddhists. The United Nations has stated that Myanmar’s actions may constitute genocide, liable for prosecution under international law, a charge the Myanmar government flatly denies. Thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, concentrating in crowded refugee camps in the district of Cox’s Bazar.
The move of these Rohingya refugees to the island of Bhasan Char represents just the latest development in the saga of statelessness that this people has faced. Problematic as the solution may be, it bears repeating that Bangladesh is a relatively poor nation that is ill-equipped to care for a vast refugee population within the pre-existing infrastructure of Cox’s Bazar. On Bhasan Char, Bangladesh has a unique opportunity to create a community that is safe for the Rohingya’s safe development, and perhaps eventual integration into the wider society of Bangladesh. However, to do this, it must invest what resources it has into infrastructure that is protected against flooding and storms, and that can handle the strain of hundreds of thousands of settlers while safeguarding environmental welfare. Bangladesh does not have to do this alone, of course; other nations must provide expertise and capital to achieve the best humanitarian results on Bhasan Char. But most importantly, Bangladesh and the rest of the international community must condemn Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. This condemnation must be backed with sanctions and other penalties against Myanmar’s leadership. Only through these actions can the next chapter in the story of the Rohingya be a brighter one.