Tales of refugee ‘warehousing’ as Bangladesh relocates Rohingya refugees

One year on since Bangladesh began relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar camp to Bhasan Char – a remote island, formed from Himalayan silt in 2006, and prone to cyclones, in the Bay of Bengal – it is time to take stock.

So says Themba Lewis, AMERA International trustee and regional manager in Asia of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC). Themba and Hanh Nguyen, an award winning researcher at MMC, have co-authored an article published on the subject in The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region.

While the Bangladesh government says the relocation is imperative to decongest the overcrowded government-run refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh, inhabited mainly by Rohingyan refugees who have fled persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, it undermines long term solutions; and challenges refugees’ access to basic rights, according to the article.

Rohingya refugees Photo credit: Tasmin News Agency

Warehousing’ of refugees

The writers say the case of Bhasan Char is linked to the concept of refugee “warehousing”. This is the practice of indefinitely keeping refugees in situations of restricted mobility. Such policies are in need of attention throughout the region, where Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, and others have engaged in challenging refugee reception practices.

About 19,000 Rohingya refugees are currently estimated to be on the island of Bhasan Char, which previously hosted a military establishment. It is said to lack suitable infrastructure to support populations over time and is exposed to potential natural disasters – such as cyclones and monsoons. Much work at both a national and international level is needed in order to come up with solutions that respect people’s fundamental rights, demonstrate collaborative approaches and support the challenges faced by Bangladesh as a hosting country.

Bangladesh first started housing refugees on Bhasan Char in May 2020, after rescuing a stranded boat attempting to travel to Malaysia from Cox’s Bazar. It was initially presented as a quarantine facility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the camps. But refugees have been kept on the island ever since – some even facing arrests for attempting to leave.

‘Prison-like conditions’

In December 2020, Bangladesh authorities officially began relocating the refugees from Cox’s Bazar camp to Bhasan Char island, despite UNHCR and others demanding an independent technical assessment of the refugees’ protection needs beforehand.

“Many Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char also repeatedly say they are living in ‘prison-like’ conditions with very limited access to healthcare, education, work and protection. But the Bangladesh Refugee Commissioner reports the government will send around 81,000 Rohingya refugees to the island once the 2022 monsoon storms end – to fulfil a quota of 100,000. Bangladesh has simultaneously taken steps to “clear the way for new homes” in Cox’s Bazar – including the controversial demolition of more than 2,000 shops in the camps, as the number of refugees increases.

Read the entire article first published in the Diplomat on 8 February 2022, here.