Although official estimates have remained inexact regarding the actual number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh at present, Bangladeshi authorities have suggested that ‘the number exceeds one million.’ The magnitude of such numbers clearly puts Bangladeshi resources under significant strain in its attempts to equip these displaced people with the necessities of life. Unfortunately, this task of providing adequate food, shelter and generally solid living conditions has been made even more difficult by haphazard monsoon weather which has not only put services under great financial strain but also caused significant damage to infrastructure in refugee camps. Refugees are living in cramped and squalid conditions, with shelters built to house around ten people reportedly holding two or three times that number. In light of such concerns, the Bangladeshi government has proposed a relocation-based solution which has attracted strong criticisms from NGO’s. Authorities are seeking to ‘relocate 100,000 Rohingya refugees to the uninhabited island of Bhansar Char; the relocation was set to commence in September.’ What is crucial to emphasise here is the short-sighted nature of a solution which is rooted in the unlikely possibility of future repatriation.
These problems have been further aggravated by the recent April monsoon flooding, as it has been reported that the overwhelmingly crowded Cox Bazaar refugee camps sustained severe damage to infrastructure. As such, Relief Web online reported that ‘in order to repair the damage to infrastructure caused by the storm the I.O.M. team is having to unblock drainage culverts, position sandbags to stop further erosion, clear landslides from access roads, [and] dig temporary drainage channels to release rain water and divert traffic.’ Whilst the I.O.M.’s (International Organizations for Migration) response to the situation is worthy of applause, it is important to recognizee that the organization is reported to be “only 22 per cent funded.”
In analysing the Bangladeshi response to the influx of Rohingya refugees, it must be acknowledged that the matter has no straightforward answer. Any critique must strive to exercise fairness by examining the viability of the current measures and proposed solutions and engaging with their effects through the prism of pragmatism.
It is ironic that the decision to transfer 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhansar Char island was informed by serious concerns regarding the impact of haphazard weather patterns and its implications for the Cox Bazaar refugee settlement. However, the island itself has been reported to be unfit and unsuitable ‘for human habitation as it could be seriously affected by rising sea levels and storms surges.’ Authorities have dismissed such concerns and instead attempted to bolster the supposed logic underlying the relocation move by focusing upon the ‘embankment to be built upon the island.’ Rather than grappling with with this political word play, it is important to strike at the heart of an issue which necessarily demands that human safety be prioritized. The relocation schema is fundamentally lacking in sense and logic, especially considering that ‘there are six feasible relocation sites that could accommodate 263,000 people closer to the existing camp.’ Colloquially put, it appears that Bangladeshi authorities have opted for the shortest straw in the batch. This critique is particularly valid as it has been reported that Bhansar Char Island could ‘become submerged during a strong cyclone with a high tide [as] nearby islands have a tidal range as high as six metres.’
The notion of repatriation in essential within legal disputes surrounding refugees as it demands that the act be of a completely voluntarily nature and that the individual be properly re-established once repatriated. However, given the severity of systematic violence faced by the Rohingya for decades, such calls for repatriation transgress against the objective of securing the lives of these peoples against brutality. To that end, the Memorandum of Understanding has, without room for negotiation, been ‘rejected by Rohingya community leaders.’ The unviability of the move given the harsh socio-political landscape of the Rakhine state has prompted such reactions. Of significance here is the critique of Bangladeshi-based Rohingya political activist Ko Ko Linn who stressed that the agreement erred greatly in eschewing engagement with the Rohingya refugee voice in their decision making processes. He further remarked that ‘in the agreement there is no commitment from the Burmese government to fulfil our key demands as a precondition for our safe return to our homes. It is against the interest of the Rohingya.’ Although, there is clearly no easy or straightforward solution to the situation, repatriation is clearly not a wise or viable option. Currently, regional peace and security in the region appears not to heed the dictum of law and order. In such a climate, where Rohingya rape and slaughter has been widely normalised, it merely amounts to wishful thinking to argue that actual repatriation, as within the contours of Refugee Law, would be a viable possibility in the near future. Of particular and worthy note here is Linn’s critique that ‘in the agreement there is no commitment from the Burmese government to fulfil our key demands as a precondition for our safe return to our homes.’
In devising an alternative, it is important that it be recognized and acknowledged by both the UN and the Bangladeshi government that, unfortunately, repatriation is not an genuine option. Doing so will enable both parties to be more grounded in reality, as opposed to the current vie for repatriation which is fallaciously rooted in the machinations of idealism. In adopting a common-sense based approach to the situation, coupled with, the overarching humanitarian aims tethering the Refugee Convention, logic would dictate that Bangladesh accept that the Rohingya will become part and parcel with the Bangladeshi community with time. It is thus recommended that Rohingya be given recognition within the Bangladeshi legal system through temporary protection visa or the like, with the ultimate end goal being the naturalization of the Rohingya. Bangladesh must arrive at the realization that the Rohingya are there to stay as they have no place to return to. They did once have homes and communities, but the blood bath and debauchery that forced them to cross borders is testament to their suffering.
Given that there are ‘six feasible location sites’ near Cox Bazaar it would appear wise to abandon the Bhansar Char island solution and opt for the dispersing of the refugee population across these nearby sites. It would also be sensible to provide the Rohingya with working rights as this would enable them to stabilize and rebuild their lives, in this new country, in which they are clearly here to stay, due to situations beyond their control.