It is difficult to understand why the international agencies and human rights organisations are quite so distressed, over the government of Bangladesh’s plans to relocate around 10 percent of the Rohingya refugees it has been hosting in haphazard camps that have sprung up along the border area with Myanmar, to Bhashan Char, the island in the Bay of Bengal that formed as a result of aeons of siltation. By the same token, it is also not easy to understand just quite what the urgency is for the government itself, given that it is happening now at the end of the monsoon season, when the most credible reasons it has put forth (the pressure on Cox’s Bazar, deforestation, and importantly the risk of landslides) do not pose any immediate risk.
The UN’s insistence on “a comprehensive technical and protection assessment” to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char is of course a sensible one, and it is mysterious why the the government has failed to allow it to pursue that course. It is possible that Dhaka has lost faith in the UN to see things from Bangladesh’s perspective when it comes to dealing with the issue of the Rohingyas. Some of this animus came to the surface in the comments made by the foreign minister after news broke of the relocation having commenced. Commenting on the concerns expressed by the UN, he replied rather caustically that the government would be happier if the UN were to share some fears and concerns with Myanmar, over their failure to create the conditions in Rakhine for the Rohingyas’ repatriation. In the past, the foreign minister has speculated that the UN agencies’ opposition to the move is based on the inconvenience their own officials would face on Bhashan Char, away from the nice hotels of Cox’s Bazaar.
Yet it is also not as if the UN has been opposed to the move all the way. To start with, there may have been some apprehensions, as there are among Bangladeshis, on whether the island is truly inhabitable throughout the year. That was the main concern expressed by Yang Hee Lee, the UN’s former special rapporteur for Myanmar, who was flown to the island by the Bangladesh government in 2019. To address those concerns, officials point to a newly-constructed three-metre (nine-feet) embankment around the island that they say will keep out tidal surges in the event of a cyclone.
Two months after Ms Lee’s visit though, a senior UN official - Volker Turk, an assistant high commissioner at the UN's refugee agency - welcomed Bangladesh's plan to move Rohingya refugees out of the congested camps in Cox’s Bazaar, along with its “very active steps to identify alternative settlement”.
What we need to guard against however, is that Myanmar doesn’t seize this opportunity to expel and send what remains of the Rohingyas in their country across the border, on the pretext of having their own island to go to now. That would be tragic.