In the Bay of Bengal, authorities in Bangladesh relocated approximately 1,500 Rohingya refugees to a remote island, Bhasan Char. However, the relocation drew criticism from international human rights organizations. The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim people, are highly persecuted and are stateless. The group is denied citizenship in their native Myanmar, a principally Buddhist nation formerly known as Burma, where they live under apartheid. In August of 2017, following insurgent attacks on remote police outposts in western Myanmar, the military initiated a harsh crackdown on the Rohingya population.
Backed by local Buddhist mobs, the troops reportedly burnt down thousands of homes and attacked civilians. An estimated 10,000 were murdered, and Rohingya women and girls were subject to mass rapes. The military offensive has been described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and is currently being tried in the International Court of Justice for genocide. About 700,000 Rohingya, primarily women, children and the elderly sought refuge in Bangladesh to escape. The refugees settled in Cox’s Bazar and were sheltered in 34 overcrowded camps. An additional 200,000 Rohingya were already living in Bangladesh before 2017 due to displacements. Kutupalong, located in Cox’s Bazar, is currently the largest refugee camp globally, housing more than 600,000 Rohingya. The temporary housing is often unsanitary due to cramped conditions and difficulties accessing clean water.
Located approximately 120 miles south of Dhaka, the capital, the island has never been inhabited. Bhasan Char translates to “floating island,” as the silt landmass only surfaced twenty years ago. Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities globally and a critical shortage of land, so officials have previously suggested utilizing Bhasan Char to house migrants. As the island was unsafe, the idea was ultimately rejected. The area is low lying and, as a result, is prone to both floods and cyclones. Bhasan Char recently underwent renovations to create a safe environment for refugees. For example, the island was refitted with flood protection, cyclone shelters, and embankments. The Bangladeshi navy also constructed houses, hospitals, and mosques to accommodate up to 100,000. Contractors claim that the infrastructure is modern, with multi-family concrete homes and roads. However, the island conditions have been directly compared to prisons by Human Rights Watch and refugees alike. Of the 120 shelters located on Bhasan Char, each is supposed to house between 800 and 1000 people. Further, a report authored by Amnesty International alleged that housing was cramped and unhygienic with limited healthcare.
Relocating the Rohingya to Bhasan Char is a short-term response to an ongoing issue. The Bangladeshi government initiated relocation without the support of international organizations. The U.N. “has not been involved in preparations for this movement or the identification of refugees and has limited information on the overall relocation exercise,” according to a recently released statement. Instead, the U.N. proposed a “review of the safety, feasibility and sustainability of the island for the refugees.” Additionally, any relocations should “involve the full consent of the Rohingya.” Currently, the movements seem to be occurring under coercive circumstances. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities allegedly supplied refugees with misleading information regarding conditions on the island and incentives to move. The organization also claimed that a dozen families appeared on a list identifying them as willing to travel to Bhasan Char. However, Human Rights Watch indicates that the refugees did not volunteer to relocate. An individual whose name appears on the list told HRW that he fled from his shelter to hide and still fears forced relocation. A Rohingya woman claimed to NPR that local elders told her she had no choice but relocation and decided to hide to avoid moving to Bhasan Char.
Most Rohingya are unwilling or unable to return to Myanmar. Repatriation is technically possible due to a bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh’s governments. However, as concerns for Rohingya safety in Myanmar are ongoing, refugees are reluctant to return. Despite facing global scrutiny and criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi was reelected to lead Myanmar, although the genocide occurred under her leadership. It is necessary to note that the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar were not permitted to vote. Charges of genocide were brought against Myanmar to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The ICJ ordered Myanmar to protect the minority from “genocidal violence” and “preserve any evidence of past crimes.” The Rohingya population remains vulnerable.
The interim measures imposed on Myanmar by the ICJ were criticized, as more significant action is required. Myanmar was ordered by the court to submit a report back to the United Nations every six months. Activists have criticized the provision, as the news is not made available to the public. Subsequently, it is impossible to truly scrutinize the measures that Myanmar has apparently implemented to protect the Rohingya. In fact, activists indicate that few actions have been taken to prevent violence against the minority, and Tun Khin, the president of Burma Rohingya Organization U.K., claims that the genocide is still ongoing. Approximately 600,000 still live in Rakhine State in Myanmar under harsh conditions. Human Rights Watch claims that the population still faces “government persecution and violence. and confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, and cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education and livelihoods.” Further, the issues underlying the genocide went mostly unaddressed. The Rohingya people have still yet to be granted citizenship. Instead, the persecuted minority is continuously characterized as “illegal immigrants” in their own native homeland. The blatantly incorrect characterization contributes to perceptions of the Rohingya as outsiders. However, the leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to deny charges of genocide. Suu Kyi has already been stripped of several awards recognizing her humanitarian work in the 1990s. She has not, however, been stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize. Notably, in 2019 a case was opened in the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against the Rohingya people.
Just as Amnesty International stated, the movement of Rohingya refugees should be halted altogether. The organization called to “return those on the island to their families and community in mainland Bangladesh, and follow due process including the full and meaningful participation of refugees in any plan for their relocation.” Any plans to relocate should occur with the consent of the refugees and the cooperation of the U.N. office in Bangladesh. Additionally, the international community and aid organizations should continue to offer support to those currently residing in the crowded Cox’s Bazar camps through monetary and physical relief. Now, it is unclear if any humanitarian agencies will even be allowed on Bhasan Char. Transparency is necessary; journalists have also been denied access to the refugees on the island. The Bangladeshi government could address international organizations and refugees’ concerns, utilizing global aid to provide the Rohingya with adequate schooling, healthcare, and housing.
It is necessary to note that the first residents of Bhasan Char were 300 Rohingya who had been stranded at sea for several weeks while attempting to flee Malaysia. These refugees were brought to the island in May. Many refugees are reportedly leaving Cox’s Bazar via the Andaman Sea in order to seek opportunities in Malaysia, a nation with a Muslim majority. However, Rohingya refugees face many barriers, which often prevent successful migration. The journey itself, ten days at sea, is quite perilous. According to the BBC, a small fishing vessel that carried dozens of asylum seekers capsized, killing fourteen people. Further, reaching Malaysia does not guarantee entry and a better life. The Malaysian government was condemned internationally to push boatloads of refugees back into the sea and leave refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea throughout early 2020.
Although the practice seems to be temporarily suspended, Human Rights Watch claims that the Rohingya that reaches Malaysia are detained and prosecuted for attempting to enter the nation. The imposition of criminal penalties on refugees for illegally entering another nation effectively violates international law, which calls to protect the persecuted. Permitting the Rohingya people to enter Malaysia would help relieve the pressure on overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and offer refugees valuable opportunities.
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