Refugees International is deeply concerned about plans announced by the government of Bangladesh to begin relocating Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char, an isolated island more than 30 miles off the coast of Bangladesh. Serious questions about safety and voluntariness of such a relocation remain unanswered. The timing of the proposed movements, ahead of the monsoon and cyclone seasons, is particularly troubling given the island’s recent vulnerability to flooding and location in the historical path of cyclones. Until these issues are addressed, the international community should be unified in rejecting the proposal.
A team from Refugees International visited Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh last month and heard widespread concerns about relocation to Bhashan Char island. The interviews made it clear that Rohingya refugees have not been properly informed about any potential move. Rather, calls for beginning such relocation have sparked widespread fear and anxiety among an already highly traumatized community. As one Rohingya community leader told Refugees International, “we don’t want to go there. It is an island where no one has lived before.” Or as another refugee asked, “How will we survive there with water, cyclones, and storms?”
The idea of moving Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char island has been raised over the course of many years and usually dismissed amid international criticism. The latest plans have gained momentum due both to the fact that Bangladesh has spent nearly $300 million in reinforcing the island and to recent remarks by high-level ministers that Bangladesh would begin moving Rohingya refugees to the island in April 2019. But too many serious questions remain unanswered regarding protection, freedom of movement, access to livelihoods, logistics, and the availability of services. Nor have the Rohingya been sufficiently informed to ensure any movement is voluntary. It is also unclear, even with the building of embankments and permanent structures, whether the oft-flooded low-lying island would be safe.
Before any move to relocate Rohingya, the government of Bangladesh should first allow thorough and independent technical and protection assessments by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other international actors to determine the feasibility and safety of such a move. UNHCR has so far had only limited access. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar visited the island in January 2019 and reported too many unknowns as to whether the island was “truly habitable” and warned about relocation creating a “new crisis.”
The root of the crisis remains in Myanmar and the creation of conditions conducive to safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable returns for Rohingya to Myanmar is where international pressure and focus should remain. But actions by Bangladesh that threaten to put Rohingya at unnecessary further risk must also be denounced.
The government of Bangladesh has taken on a great responsibility and deserves credit for welcoming some one million Rohingya refugees. But premature movement of Rohingya to an island posing unacceptable risks to their well-being threatens to undo the significant good will that has been built up.
Until the serious protection questions raised by relocation are answered and openly communicated to UN agencies and the Rohingya refugees themselves, the government of Bangladesh should refrain from moving the Rohingya to Bhashan Char.