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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

This is where Rohingya are being sent: a newly surfaced island in Bay of Bengal

Bangladesh has begun sending Rohingya refugees from overcrowded camps at Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, an island formed by sedimentation (char is Bengali for sediment) close to the coast. What's on Bhasan Char? Is it habitable?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai | Updated: December 7, 2020 6:19:16 pm
rohingya, rohingya bangladesh, rohingya Bhasan Char, rohingya sent to Bhasan Char, rohingya news, indian expressRohingya refugees are transported on a naval vessel to Bhashan Char, or floating island, in the Bay of Bengal, from Chittagong, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (AP Photo)

Bhasan Char, the site where Bangladesh has begun sending Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps at Cox’s Bazar, is an island formed by sedimentation (char is Bengali for sediment) close to the coast.

It is estimated that more than 8 lakh Rohingya, who fled an army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine Province in 2016 , live in the camps at Cox’s Bazar in unhygienic conditions. Bangladesh’s plan is to move some 1 lakh refugees to Bhasan Char, 39 km from Naokhali on the mainland.

The plan has been in the making since 2017. In 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said it would be a temporary measure. One of her ministers said those relocated to the island would not be allowed to leave from there unless they are going back to Myanmar. The decision has evoked international concern.

What’s on Bhasan Char

Bhasan Char is less an island and more mud flat, and is vulnerable to going under water from tides and flooding. Much of it is submerged during the monsoon. Located near the mouth of the river Meghna where it flows into the Bay of Bengal, Bhasan Char surfaced only in 2006 from the sediment deposited by the river. A Google Earth view shows part of its sedimentation under water.

Located close to the much larger Sandwip, Bhasan Char spans 40 sq km. The government has built shelters, hospitals and masjids. According to media reports, construction of the concrete accommodation began in November 2017 at an estimated cost of 23.12 billion taka ($272 million). A Reuters report in 2018 said Chinese and British companies carried out the construction, which includes flood embankments and cyclone shelters.

rohingya, rohingya bangladesh, rohingya Bhasan Char, rohingya sent to Bhasan Char, rohingya news, indian express Bangladesh’s plan is to move some 1 lakh refugees to Bhasan Char, 39 km from Naokhali on the mainland.

According to a report in the Bangladesh newspaper Daily Sun, 1,440 houses have been constructed at 4 m height from the land, and can accommodate around 100,000 people. Officials told the newspaper that people relocated to the island can engage in farming and livestock breeding, but will not be able to “transact money” as Bangladesh is yet to officially recognise them as refugees and refers to them only as “stateless” people. Of 120 shelters, 20 are allocated for civil administration, learning centres, mosques, community clinics, day-care centres, orphanage etc.

Google Earth images show rows of red-roofed barrack-like structures on the island. It also has a helipad. Some fishing boats are visible, but the island is otherwise uninhabited.

rohingya, rohingya bangladesh, rohingya Bhasan Char, rohingya sent to Bhasan Char, rohingya news, indian express A woman who is among those being moved to the island cries outside a transit area where they are temporally housed in Ukhiya, Bangladesh, Thursday, Dec.3, 2020. (AP Photo: Shafiqur Rahman)

Habitable or not

Yanghee Lee, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation, told the Human Rights Council in 2019 that it was unclear to her even after she visited the island if it was “truly habitable”. “Ill-planned relocation, and relocations without the consent of the refugees concerned, have the potential to create a new crisis,” she said.

According to the Associated Press, the first group of 1,642 Rohingya arrived at Bhasan Char on December 4, transported by naval vessels from Chittagong. Some reports in western media quoted some of the relocated people as saying they were not asked for their consent. Other reports quoted some Rohingya saying they are “excited” at being relocated to a new, “peaceful and nice” place.

rohingya, rohingya bangladesh, rohingya Bhasan Char, rohingya sent to Bhasan Char, rohingya news, indian express Rohingya refugees board a ship as they are ferried to Bhashan Char, or floating island, in the Bay of Bengal, from Chittagong, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (AP Photo: Saleh Noman)

Myanmar & Rohingya

Myanmar, which does not recognise Rohingya as an indigenous group and refers to them only as Bengalis, has not reacted to the relocation to Bhasan Char. Two years ago, Myanmar had reluctantly agreed to take back some Rohingya, but hardly any went back.

The army crackdown four years ago was against a group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which Myanmar said was a Islamist terrorist group. The UN-appointed “independent international fact finding committee” said “[t]he horrors inflicted on Rohingya men, women and children during the August 2017 operations, including their indiscriminate killing, rise to the level of both war crimes and crimes against humanity”. It said the Army targeted civilians for killings, rape and sexual violence on “a shocking scale”.

Last November, Gambia, with backing from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violating the 1948 Genocide Convention. State counsellor Aug San Suu Kyi represented Mynanmar at the hearings.

rohingya, rohingya bangladesh, rohingya Bhasan Char, rohingya sent to Bhasan Char, rohingya news, indian express A navy ship carries Rohingya to Bhasan Char island in Chattogram, Bangladesh, December 4, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

In January, the ICJ passed a provisional order directing Myanmar to take “all measures within its power” to prevent atrocities against members of the minority Rohingya Muslim community, in accordance with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The orders are not binding on Myanmar. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Rohingya in Myanmar today

Discrimination against the Rohingya continues in Myanmar. In the recent elections in which Suu Kyi’s party emerged with a bigger majority than in 2015, there were practically no Rohingya voters, this right having been stripped by the military junta before the last election. With up to a million Rohingya outside Myanmar, and voting called off in Rakhine state, where a lakh Rohingya still live, even those eligible could not vote. Nominations of Rohingya candidates were rejected for not being able to prove citizenship.

ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, has been unable to address the crisis. The grouping operates on the basis of non-interference. The international horror at Suu Kyi’s defence of the army’s policies at the ICJ has led Myanmar to find solace in China’s arms.

Amid all this, Bangladesh, which has done more than any other country for the Rohingya, believes it is within its rights to bypass UN concerns at the relocation to Bhasan Char.

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