Credit: Xchange Foundation

Nearly all Rohingya refugees asked about relocating to a silt island in the Bay of Bengal refused to go, a new survey reveals.

According to a new report published by the migration research and data analysis outfit Xchange Foundation, the vast majority of their respondents (98.4%) ‘categorically refused’ to go to Bhasan Char, while 98.7% of respondents were aware of the plan.

From the over 1,000 respondents who expressed their opinion, concerns were raised about their safety, security and placement in a location further from Myanmar.

Decades long limbo

The findings obtained by the recent Xchange Foundation Report entitled ‘WE DO NOT BELIEVE MYANMAR!,’ chart the protracted living conditions and uncertain future of almost three quarters of a million recent Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh. Accumulated together with previous generations of Rohingya, there are approximately 1.2m living across over a dozen camps in the region.

This is the sixth survey carried out by the Xchange Foundation on the experiences and conditions facing Rohingya refugees.

The region has been host to Rohingya refugees for just over the last three decades with the recent crackdown and massacre by the Myanmar military in August 2017 forcing whole families and communities to flee westward to Bangladesh.

Credit: Xchange Foundation

While discussions between the Bangladeshi and Myanmar government over the repatriation of recent Rohingya refugees have been plagued by inertia and lukewarm commitment, the Bangladeshi government has been planning on relocating over 100,000 Rohingya refugees to the silt island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal.  This process was expected to take place in the middle of April, according to a Bangladeshi government minister.

State Minister for Disaster and Relief Management Md Enamur Rahman, told the Dhaka Tribune ‘Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has instructed last week to complete the relocation 23,000 Rohingya families to Bhashan Char by Apr 15.’

Is it safe?

Numerous humanitarian organisations including Human Rights Watch, have expressed their concerns over the government’s proposals, saying there are few assurances that Rohingya refugees will be safe or their access to free movement, health, education and employment will be secured.

The red marker shows the location of Bhasan Char island, with the major coastal city of Chittagong. Cox’s Bazar region is south of the city.

HRW reported in March that the Bangladeshi authorities had issued assurances that there wouldn’t be forcible relocation but that the move was designed to relieve pressure on the refugee camps and settlements across Cox’s Bazar.

The move would see the relocation of 23,000 Rohingya families to a specially constructed complex of 1,440 housing blocks, equipped with flood and cyclone shelter and flood walls.  The project is estimated to have cost the Bangladeshi government over €250 million.

To prepare the island, joint efforts of British engineering and environmental hydraulics company HR Wallingford and the Chinese construction company Sinohydro, have been responsible for the construction of a 13km flood embankment which encircles the island.

When asked by the Xchange survey team one Male Rohingya of 28 years old said, ‘We saw videos of Bhasan Char; it’s not a safe place and also during the raining season it floods.’ An older female of 42 said, ‘I’m afraid to go to Bhasan Char, because I think there is a risk to my life and my children.’

Threat of flooding

Bhasan Char or ‘Thengar Char,’ didn’t exist 20 years ago.

The island is understood to have formed through gradual silt deposits forming a island around 30km from the Bangladeshi mainland. Until now, human activity on the island has been very minimal with it being largely used for cattle and only reachable by a 3.5 hour boat trip.

But, the island is subject to the tides. It is reported that the island loses around 5,000 square acres of its territory from low to high tide (15,000 – 10,000 acres (54 square kilometres) respectively).

Credit: Dhaka Tribune

This is worsened by the threat of the monsoon and cyclone season which according to HRW’s testimony can result in parts of the island eroding.  This is recorded as being around one kilometre a year, ABC News reports.

Golam Mahabub Sarwar of the Bangladeshi  Ministry of Land, says that a high tide during a strong cyclone could completely flood the island. This is exemplifed by the 6 metre tidal range which is seen on fellow islands.

New crisis

The UN Envoy Yanghee Lee has warned that the Bangladesh government goes through with the relocation, it could risk creating a ‘new crisis’.

Lee warned that she was uncertain of the island was ‘truly habitable’ for the over 23,000 families expected to live there.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee addresses a news conference after her report to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The Special Rapporteur to Myanmar made the comments to the Human Rights Council in March, saying that if the relocations were made without consent from the people it would affect, it had, ‘potential to create a new crisis.’

She stressed that before refugees are relocated, the United Nations, ‘must be allowed to conduct a full technical and humanitarian assessment’ as well as allowing the beneficiary communities to visit and decide if it is right for them.