Bangladesh needs a plan to help the Rohingya but moving them to Bashan Char is not it

Bangladesh needs a plan to help the Rohingya but moving them to Bashan Char is not it

Rohingya Muslims are seen at a refugee center in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district. (Shutterstock photo)
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Plans to move at least some Rohingya refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar to the island of Bashan Char are back in the news. The government of Bangladesh is under pressure to reconsider and has temporarily backed down from moving about 100,000 people to the island.
The facts are as follows. Bangladesh has made a great deal of progress in building the necessary infrastructure on the island, and has provided refugees in Cox’s Bazar with information and videos about the town-like developments on the island. For at least some of the residents of the camps, the conditions apparently on offer on the island would certainly seem to be an improvement on the day-to-day facilities in Cox’s Bazar.
However, from the start there have been two fundamental problems with the Bashan Char plans, and they still have not been addressed. The first is that the safety of the island is very much in question. Bashan Char is barely above sea level and is located in the middle of the Bay of Bengal — right in the path of seasonal monsoons.
There is a reason why the island is not currently populated. It is therefore not clear that long-term habitation is feasible without significant ongoing financial support to rebuild facilities every time they are hit by a particularly strong monsoon season. This is before we even consider the effects of climate change on rising sea levels and the intensity of extreme weather events. All in all, the island does not look at all like a realistic long-term solution.
On the other hand, some Bangladeshi local authorities have warned that a substantial number of refugees in Cox’s Bazar are already in immediate danger from landslides. Those risks have not been verified or quantified independently, but it is certainly known that the land around Cox’s Bazar is quite exposed and prone to natural disasters of this kind.
Nevertheless even if the risks in Cox’s Bazar are indeed as advertised, it does not necessarily follow that Bashan Char is a better alternative for the Rohingya, based on a balance of risks.

It is not a proper, long-term solution to the logistical and political problems Bangladesh is facing in the wake of such a large influx of refugees — and both Bangladesh and the Rohingya need proper, long-term solutions.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

In the minds of the government of Bangladesh, unfortunately, the factors that appear to recommend Bashan Char over other locations are not the threats it poses to the lives of the Rohingya who are sent there, but rather its lack of inhabitants and the fact that it is far from other population centers.
The decision to move the Rohingya to the island might have been prompted by concerns about the sustainability of keeping more than 1 million people huddled together in the area around Cox’s Bazar, but the safety of the refugees was not the foremost concern when their next destination was decided.
Matters of local politics and concerns about how Bangladeshi communities might respond to having refugees settle near them seem to have taken precedence. In a country as densely populated as Bangladesh, there would not have been many other options that met this desideratum for the Bangladeshi authorities, and so Bashan Char was chosen.
The second fundamental issue with the Bashan Char plan is the effect it might have on the refugee population as a community. No one is suggesting that all 1 million-plus Rohingya should be moved to the island. There is nowhere near enough room for that many people. So moving some Rohingya to the island would necessarily result in a geographical split among the refugee community.
What effect will this have on the identity of the group in the long term? Might such a policy inadvertently complete the cultural eradication of the Rohingya as a coherent ethnic group? Given that they have only just escaped a genocide in Myanmar, it is understandable that the Rohingya should worry about this.
It is too early to say whether the authorities in Bangladesh will manage to entice many Rohingya to relocate to Bashan Char, and whether they are correct that the risks of remaining in Cox’s Bazar are indeed greater than the risks on the island. But in any case, the idea of moving part of the Rohingya population to Bashan Char remains, as it has been from the very beginning, a flawed plan and potentially harmful to the Rohingya people.
It is not a proper, long-term solution to the logistical and political problems Bangladesh is facing in the wake of such a large influx of refugees — and both Bangladesh and the Rohingya need proper, long-term solutions.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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