UN envoy raises concerns over Bangladesh’s Rohingya relocation plans

Bangladesh's planned relocation of 23,000 Rohingya from Cox's Bazar imperils their lives. The proposed relocation site sits in a geographically precarious position that is frequently subject to natural disasters.

Background

The Rohingya are a stateless, ethnic minority group from the Rakhine State of Myanmar. With an estimated population of over 2 million people, Rohingya possess their own language and culture by claiming ancestry from Arab traders.The majority of Rohingya are Muslims with a minority Hindu population. The government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship, refusing to recognize their identity as a people group. On August 25, 2017, Rohingya militants carried out a series of attacks following years of communal violence and alleged abuses by Myanmar’s security forces. A mass exodus of Rohingya began, fleeing across Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, settling in makeshift refugee camps.

Bangladesh is a Muslim majority, southeast Asian nation that shares a border with Myanmar on it east. 730,000 Rohingya have settled in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. In 2015, a plan was floated to convert Bhashan Char, a silty strip on Bangladesh’s southern coast,into a refugee camp. The armed forces have overseen a $280 million effort to transform the area into a habitable camp. Originally slated to open in October 2018, the effort has been plagued by delays. On October 1, 2018, officials announced a postponement following staunch opposition to the plan. 

Analysis

Bangladesh has called for the relocation of 23,000 refugees in order to ease protracted overcrowding, especially at Cox’s Bazar. Humanitarian groups have voiced concerns over the relocation plan saying that the island of Bhashan Char, which means “floating island,” sits in a geographically precarious position in the Bay of Bengal that is vulnerable to frequent cyclones. 

The funnel-shaped characteristic of northern section of the Bay of Bengal amplifies the storm surge of tropical cyclones making land-falls. The Ganges river delta exacerbates the potential of flooding affecting the majority of Bangladeshis, who live along the Gangetic plain. In addition, Bangladesh lacks satellites of its own that provide essential meteorological services. The nation runs three ground stations that receive feeds from satellites operated by other countries. Bhashan Char sits on the southern, most vulnerable portion of Bangladesh, on the Gangetic plain.

On March 11, 2019, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar told the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR), “Ill-planned relocation, and relocations without the consent of the refugees concerned, have the potential to create a new crisis.” Lee had visited the island in January 2019 and stated that “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.” Lee, who is banned from Myanmar, also told the UNHCR that over 10,000 Rohingya civilians had fled their homes in Myanmar due to violence or lack of humanitarian aid since November 2018. 

The secretary of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Ministry, Shah Kamal, indicated that the government had been in contact with UN agencies over the issue. Seeking to assuage Lee’s concerns, Kamal stated, “Everything is ready…Housing, power, healthcare, communication, storm surge embankment, cyclone shelter centers and all other facilities.”

Lee called upon the UN Security Council to refer alleged atrocities by Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and also pushed Myanmar’s government to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC. Myanmar’s ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun resisted this notion saying that the focus is on repatriation of refugees. Tun shied away from employing the word ‘Rohingya’ in his repatriation call, highlighting the stateless nature of the people group.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the high-potential for inclement weather in Bangladesh renders the southern portion of the nation especially susceptible to natural disasters. We believe that the proposed relocation of Rohingya to Bhashan Char could cause a serious humanitarian crisis in the future.