The Platform

Bhasan Char. (Dhaka Tribune)

Last year, the United Nations and Bangladesh signed an agreement to provide humanitarian assistance for Rohingya refugees residing in Bhasan Char, an island off of Bangladesh. The agreement allowed for close cooperation between the government and UN agencies on services and activities for the betterment of Rohingya refugees living on the island. This would cover skills training, education, health care, improving the island’s living conditions, and preparing refugees for an eventual return to Myanmar. However, seven months have passed, and the UNHCR has done little to uphold its end of the agreement.

The war in Ukraine has distracted the world’s attention from issues like the Rohingya crisis. Since 2017, more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees have been living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. And because of overcrowding in the camps, the security situation deteriorated. Drug traffickers and human smugglers have moved in to take advantage of the situation.

To improve the security situation and the living conditions of the Rohingya, Bangladesh decided to temporarily relocate one-tenth of the Rohingya living in the camps to Bhasan Char. Though the project was approved in November 2017, the first batch of relocations occurred in December 2020 amid speculations about the sustainability of the island. Over a year later, an additional 28,000 Rohingya have been transferred to Bhasan Char.

Bangladesh has spent over $360 million to build the necessary infrastructure to house more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees. Additionally, Bangladesh launched a project to provide 5,000 Rohingya with essential tools to earn a living.

After the commitment by the UNHCR last year, Japan extended an emergency aid grant of $2 million to the UNHCR and the UN World Food Programme to complement the humanitarian response in Bhasan Char and to support the urgent needs of Rohingya living on the island. During a May visit to Bangladesh, Isobel Coleman, the USAID deputy administrator to Bangladesh, said that the United States will increase funding to the UNHCR and the World Food Programme. Due to a lack of more direct humanitarian aid from the international community, more than 40 local NGOs are now providing humanitarian support.

During a February visit by Kelly T. Clements of the UNHCR, she praised the initiative of making Bhasan Char a “temporary stay” for Rohingya refugees. At the same time, she reaffirmed the commitment to start their humanitarian operations on the island without delay. However, the UNHCR has yet to operationalize its humanitarian activities on the island. It’s the moral right of the Rohingya who are staying there to receive humanitarian assistance provided by the UNHCR. The humanitarian support should be continued until the Rohingya are able to return to Myanmar in a safe, voluntary, and sustainable manner, which remains a shared priority of the Rohingya refugees, the government of Bangladesh, and the United Nations.

The bottom line is that since Myanmar’s military coup, the hope for the safe and dignified return of Rohingya has been blurred to a larger extent. In this circumstance, it is assumed that the Rohingya crisis seems to be more protracting and the humanitarian support for the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char should be the primary concern. The sooner the UN agencies will engage in the common protection and policy framework in the Bhasan Char, the better it will be for the world’s poorest and most persecuted refugees worldwide.

Shaikh Abdur Rahman graduated from the University of Rajshahi. Shaikh currently works at the Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS) in Dhaka, Bangladesh.