Dr Wakar Uddin is a Rohingya-American born in Maungdaw of Arakan State in Myanmar, and a professor at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, a federation of 61 Rohingya organizations worldwide. In an interview with DhakaTribune’s Syed Samiul Basher Anik, he recommends that the government continue to focus on the safe and dignified return of forcefully-displaced Rohingyas to Arakan
What is your take on the plan to relocate Rohingyas to Bhashan Char?
The plan to relocate forcefully-displaced Rohingyas to Bhashan Char appears to have been made due to the overcrowding of the camps in the Cox’s Bazar area. Keeping them in an isolated location may have been a significant factor also. Whatever the intention may have been, I am afraid there could be some unintended consequences to relocating them to the island. Further, the relocation of Rohingyas to the island may play into the hands of the extremist elements in Myanmar that are opposing the repatriation process.
Are there risks involved with relocating the Rohingya to Bhashan Char? Also, do you think there is an alternative to relocating the Rohingya to the island?
The major risks of relocation are multifold, with various political and humanitarian consequences. There are short-term risks and long-term risks. The short term ones are, of course, natural disasters, particularly during the monsoon season. Even a relatively low-category cyclone can wipe out the entire population of the island which is sitting barely above sea level and is in the general path of tropical cyclones.
Another issue is when and how the emergency response will come in the case of such a natural disaster, which can trigger a major health and food or water crisis. I do not believe they are equipped for this. The long-term risk is that the presumably short-term stay of the refugees on the island may gradually lead to permanent settlements on the island. This is a truly long-term risk if they are not repatriated to Myanmar within a reasonable amount of time. Establishing roots by the temporary inhabitants on the island is also something that the anti-Rohingya extremist elements in Myanmar would like to see happen.
To my knowledge, the general consensus in the Rohingya refugee community is not in favour of relocation to the island for these obvious reasons. The real option I can see is where the Rohingya are given temporary shelters until they can return to their original homes in Arakan. The present makeshift camps are not ideal ones, but they are still in close proximity to their native homeland of Arakan, which is very important. If the authorities in Bangladesh would like to keep them in relatively more confined areas on the mainland, it can be done without having water around them. The refugees are there temporarily, and there is no other option but returning them to where they belong – that is, their original villages in Arakan.
Do you believe the island will be able to offer dignified living conditions, safety and security for Rohingyas?
When you see the firm cement housing structures on the island, you might think that those shelters are habitable. Living in firm cement structures is one thing, but an array of inevitable challenges could likely emerge from beyond these firm shelters, in the long run, with regards to sustainability. Transforming a barren inhabitable island into a fully-functional community will not be an easy task logistically. Building living structures is not the solution, and therefore it is not likely viable.
Do you think relocation to the island will hamper freedom of movement, plus the ability of refugees to earn a living and participate in decisions affecting them?
Freedom of movement on the island may not be a serious issue if the means are there, but travelling to and from the island may be a big challenge, with possible restrictions by design. It could take years for them to become solely self-sustaining, if it happens. Launching minimal economic infrastructure for them to make a living will be a monumental task and will take a significant length of time. In the meantime, they [the Rohingya] will have to rely on humanitarian relief for years; and education for them and the future of the youngsters is something we have to think about seriously.
Participation in decision-making may have very little or no effect on their lives. The devil is in the details, and also there are so many unknowns currently that are not in the equation regarding the island issue. We are talking about human lives here, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people who have been a peaceful community in their own country, who now have to languish in camps or on an island.
Do you have any suggestions for Bangladesh’s government regarding the relocation plan?
What the people and government of Bangladesh have done in this crisis is way beyond noble. Saving the lives of over a million Rohingya men, women, and children is highly commendable. The global community has expressed tremendous appreciation to the Bangladesh government for providing them refuge and effectively handling this manmade disaster.
My suggestion to them is not to rush into relocating the Rohingya refugees to the island. The government should continue to focus on the process that it has already undertaken; that is, the safe and dignified return of the forcefully displaced Rohingya to their original homes in Arakan.
Bangladesh should continue to engage with Myanmar – along with UNHCR, UNDP, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, the WFP and other international agencies – for more aggressive implementation of the agreement signed with the government of Myanmar. Heavy involvement of international agencies in the repatriation process is crucial because of the assistance that all the displaced people will need from them in reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Rebuilding homes in their villages ahead of the repatriation must be the centrepiece of the preparation on the ground in Arakan. There is no need to send the returnees from the camps on one side of the border to camps on the other side in Myanmar. Those transit camps in Myanmar may not turn out to be real transit camps after all, but possibly semi-permanent or permanent internment camps – an another likely quagmire.
I cannot see any reason why the displaced Rohingya would not want to go back if they were allowed to return to their villages with their rights and security. The very fabric of socio-economics, culture and identity of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been almost completely broken down, but these people are very resolute, and they will rebound and resume their lives relatively quickly once they can safely return to their country.