Human rights groups slam draft UN plans to send Rohingya to Bhashan Char
Human rights groups have reacted with horror to reports of United Nations draft plans to help relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladeshi camps to a barren, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.
A document drawn up this month by the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN's food aid arm, and seen by Reuters, has revealed how the agency supplied the Bangladeshi government with detailed plans of how it could provide for thousands of Rohingya being transported to the island on a voluntary basis, The Daily Telegraph reported.
Dhaka has long insisted that it is unable cope with the dramatic influx of refugees to camps in Cox’s Bazar since a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military in August 2017, said by UN investigators to have been conducted with “genocidal intent”, prompted some 730,000 Rohingya to flee their homes.
Relocation to the uninhabited, remote island of Bhasan Char has been touted as a solution to chronic overcrowding. But many Rohingya are fearful to go and human rights experts warn that the move to an island made of silt and vulnerable to frequent cyclones could spark another crisis.
The revelation of draft WFP plans, including a timeline and a budget for how the agency and its partners "may facilitate the identification, staging, forward movement, reception, and sustainment of refugees" on Bhasan Char, was met with outrage on Monday.
“What the hell is the WFP thinking? Bangladesh’s plan to move Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char looks like a human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making so UN agencies should be talking about how to stop this ill-considered scheme, not facilitate it,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“The reality is the Rohingya don’t want that one-way ticket to Bhasan Char because it promises to be a Rohingya Alcatraz, with freedom of movement restricted, health and other services limited, and no guarantees of survival if a typhoon hits and submerges the island,” he told The Telegraph.
Multiple reports have confirmed that Rohingya refugees fear isolation from their communities and the inability to make a living on the island.
“For people who have suffered so much and lost everything at the hands of the brutal Myanmar military, their camp communities are the only remaining support system they have left.
Bangladesh fails to understand the Rohingya will not be willing to be separated from these communities voluntarily which raises the grim prospect of forced movements. Does WFP really want to be supporting that?” said Mr Robertson.
The WFP document, labelled a “Concept of Operations”, stresses that any relocation should be voluntary and done "in accordance with humanitarian principles and code of conduct".
More detailed operational planning would be needed it says, noting that the document had been "developed quickly and without the benefit of any recent on-site assessment".
Gemma Snowdon, a WFP spokesperson told The Telegraph UN humanitarian agencies had raised a “number of concerns” in ongoing discussions with the Bangladeshi government that needed to be addressed before “voluntary relocations” could take place.
These included “critical protection and operational planning” and “access to services and rights,” she said.
Ms Snowdon added: "The viability any refugee relocations to Bhasan Char and the possibility of establishing a new humanitarian response operation on the island requires thorough assessments and careful planning.
“As part of its constructive engagement with the government, humanitarian agencies are examining potential operational needs, financial costs, and provision of services that we traditionally support in emergencies: including food security, protection assistance, emergency telecommunications and logistics.
However, Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights cautioned that the act of drawing up plans “communicates approval,” arguing that instead of “overemphasizing” that relocations should be voluntary, the UN’s core position should be that the island was a “terrible” idea.
“The UN has a long history of failing the Rohingya and it’s happening again. Bhasan Char should be off the table. It’s an ill-conceived proposal that’s sure to lead to more human rights violations,” he said.
“It’s difficult at this stage to imagine any Rohingya volunteering to go, but coercion comes in many shapes and sizes and is likely to rear its head.”
Mr Smith added: “This isn’t strategic diplomacy, it’s spineless. Bhasan Char isn't a solution, it's a problem. The government wants everyone to believe this is the only option for overcrowded camps, but’s that untrue. The authorities can find other options in Cox's Bazar District.”
Mozammel Haque, the head of Bangladesh's cabinet committee on law and order, has previously described the accommodation of refugees as an internal affair, dismissing concerns about Bhasan Char and setting an April timeframe for relocation.
However, local reports suggest that deadline has now been delayed indefinitely in order to reach consensus with the international community.
In January, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, raised her concerns after an on-site visit. “There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable,” she said.
In a statement issued on Monday, the office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh said it appreciated Dhaka’s efforts to seek alternative locations to help decongestion but that any move to Bhasan Char or humanitarian response would require “thorough assessments.”
“We are seeking clarification about the modalities of any relocations, the living conditions that would be provided and the basic rights and services that refugees would be able to access,” it said.
Rohingya refugees should be given “relevant, accurate and timely information,” it added. “The views and concerns of refugees must be heard and addressed as part of the consultative process.”