By Md. Kamruzzaman
The much-awaited visit of the United Nations’ delegation to a remote Bangladesh’s island, where the south Asian country has started relocating 100,000 Rohingya, is seemingly raising hope for the persecuted people.
According to a press release issued on Wednesday by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, the visit will take place on March 17-20, 2021 with the facilitation of the Bangladesh government.
“This initial three-day visit will bring together experts from UN agencies engaged in the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh,” said the statement, adding that the visit will look at the current situation and facilities on the island.
The UN representatives will appraise the needs of the Rohingya refugees already relocated to the far island locally called Bhasan Char, synonymous to a floating island, through this rare visit. They will also discuss with the Bangladeshi authorities as well as others currently working on the island, said the statement.
This visit is considered to be a great breakthrough as this is the first tour of the world’s largest intergovernmental organization to the far island where the Bangladeshi authorities have already relocated nearly 13,000 Rohingya despite oppositions of international actors and rights defenders on the safe ground.
Since the very beginning of starting the Rohingya resettlement project on the island, reportedly prone to natural disasters, more than 3 years ago in July 2017, international communities including the UN have been demanding for conducting a full-fledged feasibility study on the habitability and long-term sustainability of the island.
Terming the settlements at Bhasan Char as ‘world’s first island prison’, rights watchdogs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Fortify Rights, and European Rohingya Council have repeatedly urged the Bangladesh government to halt the relocation move until an independent feasibility study is done by international experts.
Bangladesh, however, is defending the controversial relocation saying it is “lifesaving for Rohingya” and has assured that the members of the persecuted people will lead a far better life at Bhasan Char than that of at the mainland refugee camps in the southern district of Cox’s Bazar, home to more than 1.2 million Rohingya, featuring it as the world’s largest refugee camp.
Why UN visit so significant
Claiming the concrete settlements on the island for Rohingya as fully protected, Bangladesh has requested the international actors to extend their humanitarian aid there. But until now a single international aid agency has agreed to move to the island to provide support for the Rohingya as has been doing in Cox’s Bazar for years. In fact, they are suspicious about this mere assurance without research.
The Bangladesh government has constructed 1,400 big cluster houses four feet above the ground with concrete blocks and 120 multi-storied cyclone shelters on the island. Each of the cluster houses is made up of 16 rooms. Spending over $350 million from its internal resources, Bangladesh has developed the resettlement project on 13,000 acres of land. The silt island located 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Bangladesh’s southwestern coast and nearly 193 km (120 mi) south of the capital Dhaka, came to existence only two decades ago and before the Rohingya project, there was no human habitation.
As a result, international communities are in full dark about the real condition of the island and what types of short-term and long-term risk factors are there. In such a situation they are not responding positively to the appeal of Bangladesh for starting services on the island. Now all international communities will wait for the report of the UN representatives.
A few days back I talked with some envoys now working in Bangladesh including Turkey and Japan. The common response of the envoys was that they wanted to see Rohingya safe in Bangladesh until their peaceful repatriation. So, the overseas diplomats are ready to help the Rohingya. But they have no concrete report based on proper documents that the Bhasan Char island is safe and protected in a country that is hit by rampant natural disasters including cyclones almost every year.
Responsibility of the UN team
It is not clear whether there are any island experts among the UN representatives. Moreover, the purpose of the visit is very general just to see the overall condition of the island. So there is no scope in this tour to do any deep research on the island as for conducting any research or in-depth feasibility study on anything there must a need to follow a professional and skilled methodology and it is also time-consuming.
So the main responsibility of the UN visiting team should be to hold dialogue with the Bangladesh government for operating full-fledged research on the long-term sustainability of the island and risk factors here.
Though the real solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in peaceful repatriation. But, it is not sure that sustainable and peaceful repatriation could be held soon.
There is a mass upsurge in Myanmar and already more than 200 protesters have been killed while the military junta has detained above 2,000 demonstrators. It is believed that the ongoing civilian movement will finally gain and be able to topple down the decades-old military dictatorship in Myanmar since its independence in 1948. But it may take more time to settle the Rohingya repatriation issue as there are past records of failure of the civilian government in Myanmar to resolve this crisis.
Still, now there are 600,000 Rohingya inside Myanmar without citizenship rights. After the success of the ongoing civilian movement, a newly democratic Myanmar may be established where the Rohingya will be considered as part of its mainstream human resource as we see a growing sense of co-existence in the southeastern state since February 1 illegal military coup. But it is tougher to calculate how much time it may take.
Furthermore, the repatriation of more than 1.2 million Rohingya to their original places of birth in Rakhine State is not a matter of joke. Most of the Rohingya areas were burnt down and massively destroyed by the Myanmar army during the August 2017 massacre. There are also reports that some joint-venture mega industrial projects are reportedly under process in Rakhine State.
On the other hand, more than 100,000 newborn babies have been added to Bangladesh’s camps. Any civilian government of Myanmar may raise questions about the citizenship of these newcomers. They may also demand assessment on documents before repatriation though the world knows how thousands of Rohingya genocide survivors fled their homeland crossing hills, jungles, and river. So most of them must fail to show any Myanmar-based documents before repatriation if demanded by Tatmadaw.
So, it seems that the sustainable Rohingya repatriation may take some years even after the success of the ongoing anti-junta movement. As a result, Rohingya have to stay in Bangladesh for many years and it is equal in the case of those being settled at Bhasan Char island. So, the safety and feasibility of the distant islet must be checked with research. The main and core duty of the visiting UN team is to make Bangladeshi authorities agree for conducting complete research on Bhasan Char for the greater interest of the humanity of Rohingya.