The Rights body says Bhasan Char is not the only place where Rohingyas can be relocated
Bangladesh should register fleeing Rohingya as refugees, ensure adequate health care and education, and let them pursue livelihoods outside the camps, the Human Rights Watch says in its latest report.
The 68-page report – Bangladesh Is Not My Country: The Plight of Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar – was prepared based on a visit of HRW officials to Cox’s Bazar this May.
“Bangladesh has rightfully garnered international praise for receiving 700,000 Rohingya refugees, though they still face difficult conditions,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at HRW and the report’s author.
He said “Responsibility for this [Rohingya] crisis lies with Myanmar, even though the burdens of this mass influx have mostly fallen on Bangladesh.”
“Myanmar’s failure to take any meaningful actions to address recent atrocities against the Rohingya, or the decades-long discrimination and repression against the population, is at the root of delays in refugees being able to return to their homes,” he noted.
More than 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh since late August last year after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya ethnic group. The refugees and rights groups accused Myanmar forces of murder, rape, torture, arson and loot – Myanmar subsequently denies the charges.
The refugees, and those who had come before them, are being kept at various camps in Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh is considering relocating them to Bhasan Char.
But the HRW report noted that Bhasan Char was not the only relocation option.
“Experts pointed out six feasible relocation sites in Ukhiya subdistrict totalling more than 1,300 acres on site which can accommodate 263,000 people. These sites are in an eight-kilometre stretch almost due west of the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp, toward the coast,” the report stated.
Prominent human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh has a small land area with a huge population already.
“So, the international community may share the refugees with Bangladesh, along with the supply of aids,” said the former executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra.
Regarding the HRW recommendation of allowing the Rohingyas to get jobs outside the camps, Nur said: “Humanity should be given priority over security.”
HRW Director (Refugee Rights) Frelick told the Dhaka Tribune: “Even though the government has not formally acknowledged their refugee status, the Rohingyas, who fled crimes against humanity in Myanmar and have a well-founded fear of being persecuted if returned there; are in fact, refugees none the less.
“As refugees, they have certain rights. Bangladesh has respected the most fundamental of those, the right not to be forcibly returned. But they also have the right of free movement and to livelihoods.
“We recommend that the government provide the refugees with legal status that recognizes them as refugees and to work with international donors on developmental projects that will provide livelihood opportunities for both refugees and the local host community parallelly.”
The HRW gave a 51-point recommendation to Bangladesh, Myanmar, UNHCR, donor countries, aid agencies and ASEAN countries. “Donor governments and intergovernmental organizations should be genuinely and robustly involved in supporting Bangladesh to meet the humanitarian needs of all Rohingya refugees,” it said.
“They should fund the humanitarian appeal for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, but also apply concerted and persistent pressure on Myanmar to meet all conditions necessary for safe, dignified, and sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees,” the rights body said.
“Bangladesh, to maintain pressure on Myanmar to agree to allow return of the refugees, insisted that the camps are temporary. This, however, contributes to the poor conditions in the camps, as the government has blocked the construction of permanent structures, including cyclone-resistant buildings, and has not allowed for other infrastructure that would suggest longer-term stay. Educational opportunities are inadequate currently,” HRW noted in the report.
Bangladesh Foreign Ministry, in response to a letter from HRW, said that since the refugee presence “is destroying the overall economic, social, environmental situation,” the government would soon start relocating 100,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, which will be fortified by an embankment to protect from high tides and waves.
“The mangrove and-grass island Bhasan Char – formed only in the last 20 years by silt from Bangladesh’s Meghna River – appears unsuitable for accommodating the refugees,” HRW said, citing eight-point possible livelihood problems in Bhasan Char.
“Experts predict that Bhasan Char could become completely submerged in the event of a strong cyclone during a high tide. The Bangladeshi government should relocate Rohingya refugees living in a severely overcrowded mega camp to safer ground in Cox’s Bazar,” it said.
Bangladesh Navy and Chinese construction crews have prepared the yet uninhabited Bhasan Char for the transfer of 100,000 refugees from the Cox’s Bazar, and Bangladesh has indicated that the process will begin in September.
The Foreign Ministry also told the HRW that while Bangladesh was providing basic needs, “the ultimate solution of the Rohingya problem lies in the safe, dignified, voluntary and sustainable return” of the refugees.
Dubbing the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp as the world’s largest refugee camp, the rights body said: “Despite efforts by the refugees and aid agencies to strengthen huts, build safer infrastructure, and develop safety plans, the camps and their residents have remained highly vulnerable to catastrophic weather conditions.”
The HRW found that the mega camp is severely overcrowded. The average usable space is 10.7 square metres per person, compared with the recommended international standard of 45 square metres per person.
The ministry said the government had already released 6,000 acres of reserve forest, and due to the existing “land shortage of our own population,” no further alternative land was available. It said the only other possible alternative settlement was in Bhasan Char.
HRW said the refugees interviewed by its officials all said that they wanted to return to Myanmar, but only when conditions allow them to return voluntarily.
“These include citizenship, recognition of their Rohingya identity, justice for crimes committed against them, return of homes and property, and assurances of security, peace, and respect for their rights,” the report said.
Nay San Lwin, a coordinator of Free Rohingya Coalition based in London, told the Dhaka Tribune: “We are very concerned about the plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char.
“We are very much afraid that they will have very limited access to education, health care and livelihoods. The refugees in the camps are also not willing to move to Bhasan Char. They would be more comfortable if they were relocated within Ukhiyawhich is easy to access by Aid agencies.
“We would like to urge Bangladesh to grant them refugee status. So the refugees will have rights to education and rights to work, among others. Granting them refugee status will help a lot in improving the condition of the camps and refugees.”
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mohammad Abul Kalam said: "The government is serious about relocating refugees to Bhasan Char. They have invested a lot of money. The timeline for the relocation is yet to be worked out.”
He said: “Even though Bangladesh is a small country, it has initially settled the refugees, which is remarkable.”
Kalam said Cox’s Bazar is not really an area with economic opportunities and the HRW’s recommendation to allow the Rohingyas to work outside the camps “is a big challenge.”
“These organizations are eager to create some livelihood opportunities for the Rohingya population, in view of the complex and overall economic situation in Cox’s Bazar.This is a very complicated issue and I think that once the emergency is over then perhaps the HRW will reconsider [its recommendation]," he added.