RECENTLY a heated conversation on social media grabbed my attention. The government’s decision to relocate some Rohingya refugees from the existing camps in Teknaf to Bhashan Char triggered the conversation. It is not so much of a conversation, but angry exchanges between the people of Noakhali and Shawndip to make lay a claim to the island. They argued that their forefathers lost their land to river erosion and have been waiting for new islands to accrue. They have, therefore, a greater claim to the land than the Rohingya refugees.
The way they try to make their claim is largely spiteful; their claim is not, however, unreasonable as conventional people who lost their land to river erosion are entitled to claim rights to newly emerged sandbars or chars. The government seems firm in its decision on relocating Rohingyas to Bhashan Char.
All debates being set aside, the question that remains for the government is whether the relocation would really lessen the immense suffering of the Rohingya refugees if they are rehabilitated there. I doubt it.
Bhashan Char is still a primitive island. It has not been cultivated for habitation. No one lives there except for some lonely shepherds who stay for a particular period of the year to graze their cattle. Tidal waves bring salty sea water in the island twice a day and submerge a big portion of the island. Some of the places are swampy. During cyclones, the situation deteriorates. People would need to be evacuated for safety. Drinking water is a scarcity there although the Bangladesh avy is assigned to arrange for drinkable water. The soil is not yet fully ready for cultivation or heavy infrastructure development; scorching heat of the sun burns everything. Relocating a community that has already endured so much now to an isolated, socially uncultivated and cyclone-prone land would further traumatise them.
They will, of course, need some work to do to survive there but what has this barren island to offer? In Cox’s Bazar, most of them earn a living by cutting the hills which brought them the bad name — hill-cutters. In the existing camps, they are also accused of being the carrier of drug substances. Now, on the island, with no possibilities of real work, chances are higher that they might be left with no option but to engage in crimes such as joining the pirates of the sea.
Bhasan Char is an island. It will obviously make the Rohingyas a soft target for human traffickers and brokers. It will be just next to impossible for the government to enclose this enlarging island all around.
We also have to keep it in consideration that the language and environment of Cox’s Bazar and Noakhali are also different. The tension between the host and the refugee community over land, fish and other local resources will be even greater in Bhashan Char. The cultural clash is highly anticipated given that a lot of Bangladeshis are developing negative feelings about the Rohingya community. For them, they are Rohingyas first.
Proper medical facilities will also be impossible there as qualified doctors could be reluctant to stay in a remote place like this and an epidemic will be enough to risk the whole community. There is no doubt that Bhashan Char will add more misery to this ill-fated people; nothing less can be anticipated.
Now the questions are: why should we rehabilitate the Rohingyas in Bhasahan Char or any other char in Bangladesh? How and in what way can it bring any solution and justice to them?
On the one hand, we are signing repatriation agreements with Myanmar to take them back; on the other hand, we are taking steps to make them permanent here. Are the agreements not meaningful? Through this project, are not we accepting the propaganda of labelling the Rohingyas as Bengalis by the ruthless Myanmar army and justifying its great inhuman treatment of them?
The crisis is political. We, therefore, have to address the situation politically. The International Criminal Court has already sought from Bangladesh observations and documents on the repression against the Rohingyas by Myanmar’s security forces in Rakhine State but Bangladesh was a bit reluctant at first to submit its observation. The government has eventually submitted its observations.
Hence, we have to draw the attention of the world community to putting diplomatic pressure on Russia, China and India to force Myanmar to be faithful to the agreements it signed now and in the past. China and India are the biggest beneficiaries of the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh as their land are leased out to companies of these two countries. Bilateral treaties will be fruitful only when other countries would mount pressure on Myanmar to implement the agreements.
Bangladesh now enjoys a high status in the eye of the world community for giving shelter to the Rohingyas which no money can buy and the world community is also highly sympathetic towards this crisis and ready to extend their hands. If Bangladesh can take a strong position, things can turn around. But we have to keep in mind that no sympathy lasts long. What is very easy now might be very difficult in years to come.
These people have their own land, country and rich cultural past; so, sending them back and establishing them there with full right is the only way forward.
Kaniz Fathema is teacher of a school in Chittagong.
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