On Wednesday, March 13th, Bangladeshi authorities announced that they will start relocating a number of Rohingya Muslim refugees from camps within Bangladesh to a remote island called Bhashan Char. This island is highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, which has brought up concern for the wellbeing of the refugees that will be moved from the established refugee camps. Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims will be relocated from the Cox Bazar district especially, and Kamal Hossain, the government administrator of this district, has stated that they are "preparing a list of refugees who would voluntarily go to the island". This relocation process will start next month, as the construction of the shelters and flood walls have been completed.
Bhashan Char is an islet in the Bay of Bengal that formed in 2006, and is under Bangladesh’s jurisdiction. The relocation plan has sparked a significant amount of controversy from the international community, as the island is extremely vulnerable to severe weather conditions. During monsoon season especially, the island struggles to handle the violent storms that hit its coasts. While shelter and flood walls have been built on Bhashan Char, it is unclear whether the islet will be able to safely protect the refugees and their livelihoods. The Bangladeshi government invited some foreign officials to see the built infrastructure, but the overall consensus was unclear. Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, visited Bhashan Char a few months earlier to gain some insight on the island conditions. Lee stated, “There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable.” This comment is indicative of the hesitations that many have of the relocation plan, as the island is prone to severe weather conditions.
While there are serious environmental concerns with relocating the Rohingya Muslim refugees to Bhashan Char, there are also various other educational and health concerns as well. These concerns are pertinent within the refugee camps themselves, but moving the refugees to an isolated island could prove to be even more detrimental. Because Bhashan Char is in the Bay of Bengal, the health and educational concerns facing the refugee population would only be more exacerbated due to its isolated nature. Readily available medical assistance and educational opportunities would be hard to come by on the island, affecting the residents and their standard of living significantly.
Bangladesh has been pushing this relocation plan for years, especially once the Cox Bazar camps started reaching their population caps in 2015. The plan was sidelined in 2016 once it became clear that the constant tidal flooding would make the island unsafe for inhabitants, especially for tens of thousands of individuals in close living quarters. However, the construction of the shelters and flood walls have been completed nearly three years despite these concerns, leading to a potential new home for the refugees.
This development in the Rohingya Muslim refugee narrative follows a recent World Bank $165 million grant approval to support Bangladesh due the financial strain that the country has endured with the mass influx of refugees. This is the third financing since June of 2018, when the World Bank had announced its plan to provide about half a billion dollars to the country. The Emergency Multi- Sector Rohingya Crisis Response Project will help with building basic infrastructure, which includes the construction of a water supply system with community standpoints, piped water supply systems, and rainwater harvesting. The World Bank team leader of this project, Swarna Kazi, explained that a majority of the Rohingya refugees are women and children and are therefore more vulnerable to gender-based violence in the camps. All of the facilities in this project are gender- friendly, and promote safety for all inhabitants.
The Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis began in 2015, and a military crackdown in 2017 saw about 730,000 people escaping to Bangladesh. It was recently announced that a Myanmar military court will be investigating this crackdown, which is composed of a major- general and two colonels. This court will look into the United Nations and Amnesty International- made allegations of mass killings, rape, and arson at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces. The Southeast Asia and Pacific Director of Amnesty International, Nicholas Bequelin, commented on this development, stating, “the idea that the Tatmadaw could investigate itself and ensure justice and accountability is both dangerous and delusional.” According to Bequelin, it is improbable that the military court will find the army guilty of any crime. This is just a way to offset the international condemnation that the army has received, while not acting against the perpetrators. The overpopulated refugee camps and the potential relocation of the Rohingya Muslim population portray how drawn out the conflict has become, and the military court investigation is not expected to assist with the end of this plight in any way.