COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — As the government of Bangladesh charges ahead with its controversial plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, United Nations agencies and humanitarian organizations are facing a dilemma.
While agreeing to the government's requests to offer food aid and health services on the island could legitimize a move decried by rights groups and make the plan more viable, refusing to cooperate risks leaving refugees in a worse situation.
Even for those willing to comply, funding is an issue, with donors refusing to support the operation without independent technical and protection assessments to ensure that the island is safe to inhabit.
Bangladesh hosts nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in scattered camps across Cox’s Bazar, more than 700,000 of whom fled violence and atrocities committed in neighboring Myanmar three years ago.
On Dec. 4, defying pressure from the U.N. and rights groups, Bangladesh relocated some 1,600 refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar to the Bhasan Char island, which remains a serious bone of contention between the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and the Bangladesh government.
Bangladesh has spent more than $300 million to prepare the previously uninhabited island to host 100,000 refugees. The government has argued that camps in Cox’s Bazar have become overcrowded and harder to manage due to socioeconomic and security challenges, but experts say that Bhasan Char is vulnerable to cyclones and floods and that refugees are being coerced into relocating.
A lack of international support
Ahead of the relocation last week, the U.N. issued a public statement saying refugees should be able to make a “free and informed decision” about any relocation, which must be preceded by independent technical and protection assessments of the island’s safety.
The entry-restricted, distant island, which can only be accessed by a three-hour boat journey from the nearest mainland, features the heavy presence of navy and police forces and is being called “a de facto prison island” by several rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.
Donors including the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union step up political demands on Myanmar at a virtual funding conference.
In a statement given to Devex, Louise Donovan of the U.N. Refugee Agency reiterated the organization’s position, saying, “The UN has not yet been permitted to access the island to carry out technical and protection assessments. These assessments would be the concrete next step in determining whether the United Nations can engage operationally with the government’s Bhasan Char project.”
However, she mentioned that UNHCR was “seeking access to the Rohingya refugees” on Bhasan Char only to understand their needs, witness the living conditions, and assess the services available on the island.
The international aid community operating in Bangladesh has, by and large, stood behind the U.N. position. In November, when the Bangladesh government arranged a guided tour for NGO personnel to Bhasan Char, no representatives from international humanitarian and development organizations turned up.
In the absence of any meaningful international backing, Bangladesh has enlisted the help of 22 domestic nongovernmental organizations that will provide Rohingya on Bhasan Char with food and other basic services for a year, said Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, project director of the Bhasan Char settlement.
However, Caritas Bangladesh, arguably the largest and most prominent in the pool of NGOs that had initially signed up, said that it will not be able to provide services on the island due to a lack of resources and funds from donors and that some other NGOs may also follow suit.
“We promised the government that if resources were available, we would start operations there,” said Ranjon Francis Rozario, executive director at Caritas Bangladesh. Caritas’ donor partners are concerned that humanitarian principles were not being followed in the relocation project. “Our partners and other donors do not agree to fund any operations in Bhasan Char. We then politely informed the NGO Affairs Bureau about our inability [to continue operating on the island],” Rozario said.
He also estimated that almost half of the 22 NGOs could eventually end up backtracking from their initial positions due to funding shortages.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, a major donor, confirmed the trend. “We know some local NGOs have said they will support work in Bhasan Char,” the statement said. “However, we have been clear with the UN and others that without independent, full and detailed assessments to make sure any refugees living there will be safe, this is not an option for any of our funding.”
“We are concerned that even our minimal humanitarian participation could be misinterpreted, including by Rohingyas, that we are supporting the Bhasan Char project.”— A humanitarian organization official
While this episode underscores the discomfort among donors about the Bhasan Char project, some refugees are concerned about food and a lack of services on the island.
“Yes, we are in better condition here than in camps, but the food is still not well prepared. We used to eat meals very early morning inside the camps, but here it is not [the case],” Dilder Begum, one of the refugees shifted to Bhasan Char last week, told Devex. “We are given packed food. Ration is not provided as yet.”
Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Fortify Rights say many Rohingya were not able to make an informed decision and were coerced to leave their existing shelters in Cox’s Bazar. In some cases, refugees were allegedly given false promises — including about the availability of NGO services on the island — by community leaders appointed by the government.
“I have not seen any NGO people. I just saw the office of the camp in charge,” Begum told Devex in a disappointed tone. Several refugees also told Devex that there were no shops for food or other essential items on the island.
In the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, the World Food Programme operates food shops for refugees to buy essential items affordably, but it has said it will not provide any services on Bhasan Char.
In a written statement to Devex, WFP reiterated its position about technical and protection assessments being the prerequisite for it to be able to function on Bhasan Char. “Our position remains the same, comprehensive assessment missions need to take place to determine the feasibility of Bhasan Char before any relocations take place,” said Gemma Snowdon, communications officer at WFP.
A conundrum for aid agencies
“The aid community faces a conundrum here,” said an official at a humanitarian organization with a considerably large presence in Rohingya camps, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
It has been three years since more than 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee violence in Myanmar. Here's what you need to know about the situation today.
“On the one hand, we have to think about Rohingyas relocated there who are unlikely to get sufficient support, and their numbers could grow bigger in the coming days. … On the other hand, we are concerned that even our minimal humanitarian participation could be misinterpreted, including by Rohingyas, that we are supporting the Bhasan Char project.”
She added: “It could act as a pull factor that may convince more Rohingyas about Bhasan Char’s reliability. It could send a wrong message and lend legitimacy to the whole project.”
This dilemma among the international aid groups was also on display on Oct. 22, when 27 international NGOs, including World Vision and the Danish Refugee Council, released a statement calling on the Bangladesh government to enable “unfettered humanitarian access” to Bhasan Char.
Although the statement contained strong wording and supported UNHCR’s demand for necessary assessments, it lacked support from many other major aid organizations working in refugee camps, due to concerns that seeking access would translate to cooperation with the government on the island — a move that may undermine UNHCR’s bargaining position in its negotiation with Bangladesh and legitimize the controversial resettlement.
The government sounds optimistic, however, that the U.N. and its partner organizations will eventually come on board. “We hope that the U.N. would now view Bhasan Char positively because this relocation was voluntary,” said Delwar Hossain, who heads the Myanmar wing at Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry. “We also hope to gain support from the UNHCR because the U.N.’s refugee agency should be where refugees are.”