Rohingya refugees near Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar district in 2017. A plan to relocate about 100,000 Rohingya to an island in the Bay of Bengal continues to divide refugees. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
More than three years after fleeing a genocidal military crackdown in Rakhine state of Myanmar and finding safety in a crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, Hefzur Rahman is wondering whether he should relocate to an island with his family.
Rahman returned to the Sal forest camp in Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar on Sept. 8 after spending three days at Bhasan Char (Floating Island) at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.
He was among 40 Rohingya majhi (community leaders) from dozens of refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar who went on a guided tour of the island under the supervision of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC).
“In short I found Bhasan Char a much better place than the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, but I am not sure what it would be like residing there for a long time,” Rahman, a father of three sons and two daughters, told UCA News.
Following the crackdown in Myanmar in August 2017, he fled with his 19-member extended family and found shelter in the Sal forest in Teknaf in Bangladesh, just across the border.
In Bhasan Char, Rahman found better infrastructure including housing facilities and farms with cows, goats and poultry. Strong embankments provide protection from high tides.
“I think the island has everything for human habitation. I believe Rohingya who lived in coastal areas in Rakhine can come here to live. A positive campaign would definitely encourage many Rohingya to relocate,” he said.
Rahman says he would be happy to start a new life on the island provided his family members also agree to live there.
Another majhi, Abdur Rahim (not his real name), is not convinced about relocation.
“It is true the environment and infrastructure in Bhasan Char are much better than in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Yet I don’t want to recommend relocating there as there is a risk of natural disasters. A better life won’t make any sense if we die in natural calamities,” Rahim, 59, told UCA News.
“Recently, some Rohingya who returned to Bangladesh after failing to go to Malaysia illegally were sent to Bhasan Char. I found they were still not happy there and were willing to return to their families and relatives in the camps.”
Although he does not want to move to Bhasan Char, he won’t discourage others who might be ready to start a new life on the island.
Bhasan Char used to be an uninhabited, muddy island prone to flooding and storms during the monsoon season. It emerged from the sea about two decades ago, is cut off from land and takes about a two-hour boat journey to reach.
Bangladesh’s government first floated the relocation plan to transfer about 100,000 refugees in 2015 but stepped back after criticism from charities and rights groups. The plan was revived after the 2017 Rohingya exodus which saw more than 740,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh.
In recent years, the government has spent over US$280 million on developing the island, including construction of 120 cluster villages and strong flood and storm embankments stretching over 13 kilometers.
Efforts for relocation to continue
The tour of Rohingya leaders was part of efforts to counter anti-relocation propaganda in refugee camps, said Muhammad Shamsu Douza, additional commissioner of the RRRC.
“We have always wanted to relocate Rohingya to Bhasan Char voluntarily, but there has been propaganda against it. Rohingya leaders have visited the island and they are positive about it. Now, we can hope they will tell their communities about it and they will be convinced about relocation,” Douza told UCA News.
“Bangladesh has sheltered Rohingya and continues to feed them. They can be assured the government won’t do anything that could harm them in any way. There will be government officials in the island, so their fear would dissipate slowly.”
Nur Khan, a Dhaka-based rights activist, is skeptical about Rohingya relocation.
“First of all, Rohingya should not be relocated against their will. Then the Myanmar government might get the message that Bangladesh is settling Rohingya in Bangladesh permanently. It is wise for Bangladesh to press Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation, not relocation,” Khan told UCA News.
Officials from aid groups say they were not aware of the government’s plan and tour of Rohingya leaders to Bhasan Char.
“We don’t know about it and there was no discussion with us. We are still waiting for government instructions,” Mustafa Sazzad Hossain, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) told Bangla Tribune news portal.
Marcel Ratan Guda, acting director of the Rohingya Project of Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh, had a similar view.
“We came to know about the Rohingya tour to Bhasan Char from the media and it is the decision of the government. We have been working in collaboration with the authorities. We think due to congestion in refugee camps and negative impacts of the environment, the government has moved ahead with the relocation plan. We believe the government is not doing anything that can cause harm to Rohingya,” Guda told UCA News.
More than one million Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state live in dozens of refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar following their exodus from deadly state-sponsored persecution for years, notably in 2016 and 2017.
Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries but they are considered recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and have been subjects to abuses and discrimination including denial of citizenship by successive military governments.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement for repatriation of Rohingya in 2018 but not a single Rohingya has been repatriated so far. Aid agencies and rights groups said conditions in Rakhine are not conducive for Rohingya to return and refugees rejected repatriation without concrete promises of citizenship, security and dignity in Myanmar.