This Is Why Bangladesh Wants To Shift Its Rohingya Refugees To An Offshore Island

by Jaideep Mazumdar - May 6, 2020 03:19 PM +05:30 IST
This Is Why Bangladesh Wants To Shift Its Rohingya Refugees To An Offshore IslandSheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
  • Bangladesh is relocating the Rohingya people for two reasons — one, they will be under total surveillance, and second, they will be divorced from radical Islamist influence.

After repeated delays due to objections raised by UN agencies, Bangladesh may finally succeed in shifting the one lakh-odd Rohingya refugees staying in overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, a silt islet 59.5 kilometers off its coastline in the Bay Of Bengal.

Bangladesh transported the first batch of 28 Rohingyas it had rescued from a boat adrift in the Bay of Bengal to the island which has brand new and adequate facilities to house over one lakh Rohingyas.

A few hundred more Rohigyas are said to be in boats and small ships that are adrift in the Bay Of Bengal after Malaysia refused to allow them into that country.

Bangladesh is likely to rescue them and lodge them at Bhasan Char.

That, say Bangladeshi authorities, will pave the way for shifting all the one lakh-odd Rohigyas staying in densely congested camps, the biggest one being Kutupalong —the largest refugee camp in the world — in Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char.

The Rohingyas in the camps at Cox’s Bazar are opposed to being shifted to Bhasan Char since that would mean staying far away from the border with Myanmar. Being relocated to a faraway island that’s a three-hour boat ride from the mainland, they say, would irrevocably mar their chances of ever returning to their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine province.

The Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar have managed to win the sympathy of the international community and UN agencies, which have been successful in pressurising Bangladesh till now to shelve its plans to relocate the refugees to the island.

Bhasan Char started emerging from the sea due to silt deposits some 20 years ago and construction of modern facilities to house the Rohingyas started there in early 2018.

The Bangladesh Navy oversaw the massive project that has cost US$ 280 million.

The facilities at Bhasan Char

International firms were engaged in designing and constructing the modern facilities at Bhasan Char.

One part of the island has been designated for housing the Rohingyas and has been divided into 120 plots, with each plot having 12 buildings.

Each building can accommodate 64 people.

“A family of four gets a 12x14 feet room with lights, fans and power points to stay in. Each building thus can accommodate 16 families of four members each, and the common facilities in each building consist of six toilets and eight shower cubicles. There are two large kitchens with 10 gas ovens each in every building,” said Murtaza Alam Moni, a senior official in the country’s home ministry.

A huge number of solar panels have been installed and construction of two wind farms is nearing completion.

Around 52,000 solar powered lights have been installed in the buildings and the entire settlement is crisscrossed with 12 feet to 22 feet wide concrete roads stretching over 42 kilometers.

Moni said 120 cyclone shelters — buildings standing on 10-feet-high concrete stilts that can accommodate 1,000 people and 200 heads of cattle each — have been constructed.

The shelters can withstand fierce storms, cyclones and tidal wave surges.

“They are meant to be used as schools and community centres in normal times,” he said.

An elaborate network of drains and sewers has been constructed and biogas facilities have also been set up.

Every plot has one pond measuring 5,461 square feet. Medical facilities have also been constructed and the Bangladesh government says it will recruit teachers, doctors, nurses, cleaners and other staff once the Rohingyas start living there.

Warehouses for storing food and separate units for housing law enforcement personnel, administrative officers, local NGOs and UN representatives have also been constructed.

As for livelihood, the Bangladesh government said that apart from doles from international relief agencies, the Rohingyas can engage themselves in fishing, poultry farming, sheep and cattle rearing, cultivation of rice and vegetables, carpentry, handicrafts, tailoring and providing different community services.

International agencies had raised concerns over possible flooding of the island during monsoons and its vulnerability to cyclones.

Those concerns have also been addressed, says the Bangladesh government.

A British engineering and environmental hydraulics consultancy — H R Wallingford —has designed coastal stabilization and flood protection measures.

Bangladesh may finally succeed in shifting the one lakh-odd Rohingya refugees.
Bangladesh may finally succeed in shifting the one lakh-odd Rohingya refugees.

Chinese construction firm Sinohydro, which is credited with constructing the ‘Three Gorges Dam’, has built a 13-kilometer long flood defence embankment and scientifically designed flood barricades which, say experts, will offer enough protection to the island even from extreme adversities.

Senior Bangladeshi officials say that villages in mainland Bangladesh don’t have the facilities that exist on this island.

“We have been allaying fears among the Rohingyas in the camps at Cox’s Bazar over shifting, and some of them have agreed to shift,” said Moni.

The opposition to relocation

But despite all these facilities, few of the 75,000 Rohingya refugees lodged in overcrowded camps and living amidst filth, squalor and poverty in tiny makeshift huts at Cox’s Bazar want to shift to the island.

International agencies, whose blind sympathies the refugees have managed to win, are also vehemently opposing their relocation on grounds that the Bangladesh government says are specious.

“The facilities at Bhasan Char are better than any settlement in the mainland and there is absolutely no threat to the island from the sea. International experts have certified that,” said Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan.

So why the opposition to the relocation from the Rohingyas? Bangladeshi authorities say that a huge number of the refugees are engaged in drug smuggling.

They are now a major conduit for synthetic drugs made in Myanmar that are transported through them for consumption in Bangladesh.

The Rohingyas are also involved in smuggling the drugs through sea and air from Bangladesh to other countries (read this, this and this).

A lot of these Myanmar-made synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine (popularly known as ‘yaba’) are also smuggled into India through the strong network that the Rohingyas have built within Bangladesh and also some parts of India, especially in some districts of Bengal along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The Rohingya refugees are also engaged in various crimes, both petty and heinous, ranging from burglaries to human trafficking.

They have often clashed with locals in Cox’s Bazar and other areas, fuelling acute resentment against their illegal activities within Bangladesh.

The Rohingyas were suspected to have carried out a string of abductions of well-off Bangladeshi traders and businessmen for ransom.

Their crimes have brought them in direct confrontation with the country’s law enforcement agencies and there have been frequent clashes.

In September last year, 39 Rohingyas were killed in gunfights with Bangladesh law enforcement and security agencies.

Bangladeshi authorities say that despite their best efforts, it has been impossible to stop the Rohingya refugees from indulging in criminal activities.

The primary reason being that in the mainland, it is not possible to ensure foolproof surveillance on them.

Bangladesh has tried imposing dusk-to-dawn curfews in the refugee camps, restricting internet access and many other measures.

“But criminal elements always find a way to get around all restrictions,” said Rafique Haldar, a senior police officer of Chittagong Division (Cox’s Bazar district is under this division).

Shifting the refugees en masse to Bhasan Char, where surveillance on them will be much easier, is the only solution, say Bangladeshi authorities.

And that is why the Rohingyas don’t want to be shifted to the island.

“They will be far away from the Myanmar border, and so they will not be able to engage in drug smuggling. Since they will be under strict surveillance at Bhasan Char, they will also not be able to carry out crimes like human trafficking, abductions, burglaries etc. They will be away from the mainland, and so Bangladeshis will be safe from them,” said the police officer.

Radicalisation Of Rohingyas

An overwhelming majority of the refugees have been completely radicalised by Salafi preachers, say Bangladeshi authorities.

“A large mass of refugees driven away from their country by religious persecution and living in poverty and squalor are naturally fertile for radicalisation,” explained the police officer.

Radical Islamist Salafi preachers who propagate hatred and advocate a regressive form of Islam have a huge influence on the Rohingya refugees. The alarming radicalisation of the refugees prompted Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to warn late last year that the Rohingya refugees have become a grave threat to national and regional security.

“These Salafi preachers won’t be allowed into Bhasan Char, and mosques there will be run by moderate and liberal preachers. So these radical Salafi preachers, fearing an end to their influence over the Rohingyas, are instigating them to oppose the relocation,” said senior Home Ministry bureaucrat Mukhtar Ali.

It has thus become imperative for Bangladesh to shift the Rohingyas to Bhasan Char in order to put an end to their criminal activities and stop their radicalisation by eliminating the pernicious influence of the Salafi preachers.

This relocation is also in the interests of India, say Bangladeshi authorities.

That’s because the Rohingyas smuggle drugs into India, and also infiltrate illegally into the country.

If they are all lodged at Bhasan Char under strict surveillance, they can no longer enter India.

Radicalised Rohingyas can pose a serious threat to India’s internal security.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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