Storms ahead for Rohingya refugees
With all attention focused on the events following the coup in Myanmar, where the death toll has already surpassed 1,000, Bangladesh is contending with the new reality of over one million Rohingya refugees becoming a permanent fixture within its borders.
When the military decided to remove the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party, they not only ended the veneer of democracy in Myanmar but also closed off the possibility of any progress that may have been made in talks to repatriate the Rohingya to their homeland.
With this new reality dawning, Bangladesh has been seeking international diplomatic support to explore any possible avenues to return the Rohingya to their rightful homes across the border. Unfortunately there is not much assistance any international actor can provide at this stage. The new military led government in Naypyidaw is fully occupied after they miscalculated and bit off much more than they could chew. And with every passing day, as the protests continue and the death toll rises, the collapse of the Myanmar state becomes much more likely. So the generals have little appetite to visit the Rohingya issue.
Dhaka on the other hand is fully cognizant that there will be little justification in sending refugees back to a country where there is blood running in the streets. So they have also been robbed of any hope to relieve some of the pressure in Cox’s Bazar. From Dhaka’s point of view, this situation is not sustainable. The Rohingya occupy the largest refugee camp in the world in one of the most densely populated countries in the world where the land mass is shrinking every year due to rising sea levels and climate change. Add to this recent outbreaks of fires within the camp and you can appreciate the full extent of Dhaka’s predicament.
It is therefore no surprise that the government in Dhaka is trying to think outside the box and develop alternative solutions. Hence the $300 million investment to turn the isolated silt island of Bashan Char into a habitable landmass. It is, on the whole, unsuitable for agriculture and could scarcely sustain more than 300,000 people — in the most extreme scenario. This means that any people who end up living on the island will probably remain permanently economically dependent on Bangladesh and/or international aid for food and other essentials.
However, more concerning than the economic dependency is that the island is directly in the path of the cyclones that typically occur in the Bay of Bengal during monsoon season.
The Rohingya occupy the largest refugee camp in the world in one of the most densely populated countries in the world where the land mass is shrinking every year due to rising sea levels and climate change.
The government, fully aware of this vulnerability, is completing a 6-meter storm wall around the whole island, which the navy believes will be sufficient to weather the worst of storms. However, as the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the US showed, a larger than expected storm can quickly overrun such defenses. And against the background of climate change, large storms are virtually guaranteed.
Dhaka has also delayed the move of thousands of Rohingya due to poor weather, which further raises issues of access to the island in the eventuality that the weather is not conducive. An unsustainable island with tens of thousands of refugees cut off from vital supplies of food and medicine and possibly rescue efforts would be catastrophic for the inhabitants.
With the monsoon season soon upon us, Dhaka must therefore take stock of the situation, and if they are unable to return the Rohingya to Cox’s Bazar as soon as possible, they should at the very least halt any further transfers of refugees to the island.
The government should also put into place contingency plans with adequate stores of food, water and medicine on the island itself, in case Bashan Char is cut off by cyclones and heavy seas. Further, the Bangladesh Navy should be placed on high alert in the eventuality that an emergency evacuation of some or all refugees is required at short notice. This is a region, after all, that is hit with over 20 major storms every year and where hundreds of thousands have died over the decades due to such extreme weather.
No one is denying the need Bangladesh has to find alternative solutions to relieve the pressure of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. Under current arrangements, these efforts are costing Dhaka about $900 million dollars a year — money it can scarcely afford as a still impoverished country. Bangladesh has acted diligently and humanely from the outset of this crisis and in many ways is an example to the rest of the world of how to respond to a sudden humanitarian emergency. Dhaka needs to continue applying these same original principles for every decision on the future of the Rohingya until the situation finds some kind of long-term, sustainable resolution.
• Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy and author of “Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst: 2016)