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Bangladesh and the Rohingya: Implications of Refugee Re-location to Thengar Char Island

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • February 28, 2017

    The Bangladesh government has decided to resettle a large group of the more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in an island called `Thengar Char` off the Noakhali district coast. Dhaka has justified this decision by stating that it will be a temporary relocation from Cox`s Bazaar, where the camps are bursting at the seams, living conditions are unhygienic and the refugees are falling prey to human traffickers and narcotic smuggling networks. Its intention is, to start with, relocate 70,000 Rohingya refugees particularly those given shelter after the civil disturbances in Myanmar`s Rakhine state last year. These refugees from the two main over-populated camps at Kutapalong and Nayapara in Cox`s Bazaar district are to be shifted to Thengar Char island, which is basically a shoal that emerged from the sea only 11 years ago.

    Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has also started soliciting international financial aid for rehabilitating these refugees in Thengar Char. Hasina is reported to have also discussed prospects of aid for this rehabilitation project with the Chancellor Angela Merkel during her recent visit to Germany to attend the Munich Security Conference. Hasina’s government has also mounted a sensitization drive with foreign missions and their representatives in Dhaka as well as with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with a view to gain international acceptability for the rehabilitation project. The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, while recently visiting the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox`s Bazaar, neither endorsed Dhaka’s plan for relocating some of these refugees to Thengar Char nor mentioned anything to the contrary.

    International agencies like Human Rights Watch have, however, criticized the refugee relocation decision of Bangladesh government on the ground that it would be against the will of the refugees and consequently violate Bangladesh`s obligations to uphold human rights law. It has also been alleged that such action by Bangladesh would tantamount to violating the essence of non-refoulement – a principle of international law that does not permit state authorities to forcibly push back refugees to places from where they fled from or send them to locations against their will. The fact of the matter is that the physical and environmental conditions in Thengar Char are very challenging and at present not conducive for human habitation. There are reports in the media that the Bangladesh government has tasked the army to help in the rehabilitation-cum-relocation process, which implies that an element of coercion or force may be involved in some contingencies.

    Thengar Char is an island of approximately 40 square kilometre area, which was declared a reserve forest in 2013. It is located between Sandeep and Hatia islands off the Noakhali district coast near the Megna river estuary abutting the Bay of Bengal. The island is quite remote, to the extent that it can be reached only by a two-hour boat journey from the nearest Bangladesh mainland, though it is at a linear distance of 80 kilometres from Noakhali town. In the diverse and dynamic coastal area where the island is situated, land erosion and subsidence are major problems, and long-term land reclamation is an essential need for viable economic activity. This is also an area afflicted by frequent storms. There is also no mobile telephone connectivity to Thengar Char. The general impression among authoritative international observers and agencies is that Thengar Char is afflicted by `pirates, cyclones and mud.` Some expert agencies in Bangladesh have observed that it may take 15 to 20 years at the least to make this island effectively habitable with basic minimum services and agricultural conditions suitable for subsistence farming.

    In the above-stated circumstances, the decision of the Bangladesh government to relocate the Rohingyas refugees at Thengar Char may not apparently be the most appropriate. Apart from harsh living conditions which these refugees will have to countenance in their new living environment, they will also have to face the challenges of a difficult terrain and the illegal activities and influences of contraband dealers. It is also possible that, after relocation in Thengar Char island, some of these refugees may try to leave the place surreptitiously for other countries like Indonesia towards the east as well as to the Indian Sundarbans in the west, notwithstanding that a risky sea journey of nearly 200 kilometres would be involved to the nearest Indian coastal territory. The Government of India should not, therefore, be oblivious to such an eventuality.

    Past experience shows that forcible refugee rehabilitation efforts, particularly in inhospitable terrain, and in juxtaposition to living areas of people or nationalities having competing economic interests, are generally not successful. The Thengar Char programme is unlikely to satisfy the socio-economic aspirations of the Rohingya refugees in the near future. Instead, it may turn out to be a continuous source of their discontent, and also have demographic ramifications for the Bangladeshis in that country`s coastal districts as well as in the Sundarbans area which involves both India and Bangladesh.

    Bangladesh could have drawn a lesson from the Dandakaranya Development Project (DDP) experiment in India in the 1950s involving the rehabilitation of Bengali refugees from former East Pakistan. The DDP, conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru, was initiated under a cabinet resolution in 1958 and a Dandakaranya Development Authority (DDA) was set up with substantial administrative powers and supporting finances. The project was intended to rejuvenate nearly 207,000 square kilometres of forested area in the common border zone of Odisha, erstwhile Madhya Pradesh and former Andhra Pradesh. Nehru had then observed in a letter to a parliamentarian from West Bengal that the displaced persons who go there should be associated with the Dandakaranya development effort. However, the reality turned out to be otherwise. Harmonization among the administrative efforts of DDA, adjustment with the original inhabitants, i.e., the tribal people in the vicinity, and lack of motivation among the Bengali refugees to imbibe local agro-climatic practices and pattern of subsistence, were not feasible. Ultimately, rehabilitation was at the most partial, and in fact a large number of the refugees relocated to the DDP area migrated back to West Bengal, causing political unrest and other repercussions in the state`s political milieu.

    Conditions in Thengar Char are likely to be more unfavourable for the Rohingya refugees as compared to Dandakaranya because the latter are not likely to be treated at par with Bangladeshi citizens by Dhaka owing to political considerations and inadequacy of financial resources. Another fundamental difference between the Dandakaranya and Thengar Char programmes is that, in the former case, rehabilitation was organized for refugees who were to be finally assimilated as citizens, whereas the Bangladesh government has categorically mentioned that the latter is a temporary relocation of the Rohingya refugees without any commitment towards their eventual retention, absorption or citizenship.

    In the above-mentioned backdrop, Bangladesh may be able to manage the Rohingya refugee problem only as a short-term expedient, though with considerable economic implications. It may try out a model which leads to the rejuvenation of Thengar Char for long-term economic development of the island and its vicinity, while preventing the refugees from mingling with Bangladesh’s population and thus avoiding concomitant internal political and economic tensions in the immediate future. But it is doubtful whether such an expedient will serve its long-term politico-economic and security interests, unless the basic causes of the Rohingya refugee influx into Bangladesh are dealt with.

    The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served in senior appointments with the Government of India and with a State Government.