Out of sight, out of mind: Who will protect Rohingyas sent to remote, flood-prone island?

Out of sight, out of mind: Who will protect Rohingyas sent to remote, flood-prone island?
Comment: The international community must act now to prevent further atrocities against Rohingya refugees, writes CJ Werleman.
4 min read
14 Jan, 2021
Rohingya refugees on a Bangladesh Navy ship are taken to Bhashan Char island [Anadolu]
For the more than 1 million Rohingya Muslim genocide survivors, 2020 was a year of hardship, suffering and victimisation. Sadly, the new year has already brought new horrors, with Bangladesh uprooting thousands from the refugee camps of Cox's Bazaar, and sending them to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, otherwise known as Bhasan Char. 

Chased from their villages and homes by a marauding Myanmar military and its accompanying Buddhist militias who raped, tortured and murdered as many as they could, the fleeing Rohingya found shelter along the Bangladeshi border in the northern summer of 2017. 

The numbers, or rather scale of the atrocity is almost impossible to fathom, with Doctors Without Borders estimating that more than 10,000 Rohingya were killed and 18,000 raped in the four-month period spanning end of August to start of December 2017. 

For the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who remain trapped between the Myanmar military on one side, and the separatist Arakan Army on the other, the fear of further atrocities is ever present. 

"We have no freedom of movement. We cannot even go from one village to another village, because we are surrounded by military checkpoints and landmines," Mohammed Salam, Chairman of a local Rohingya Welfare Committee in Rakhine State, told me last year.

"Also, Myanmar does not give us citizenship rights or identification cards, so we are unable to pass the checkpoints, anyway."

The United Nations has described the Rohingya as the 'world's most persecuted religious minority'

Those who do make their way out of Rakhine State tend to fall into the hands of people smugglers, who take their money and many of their belongings in exchange for a seat on a rickety boat to Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand - a journey that resulted in the drowning deaths of hundreds of Rohingya throughout the previous year. 

The United Nations has described the Rohingya as the "world's most persecuted religious minority". But the organisation, along with the broader international community, has done little or almost nothing to guarantee their long-term security, their safe return home, citizenship or repatriations. As a result, the Rohingya have languished forgotten in squalid and overcrowded refugee camps located along the Bangladeshi border.

Repatriation deals have come and gone, and the government of Bangladesh has had enough, and decided to act where the international community has not. But what amounts to deportation to a flood-prone, remote island, is an act of cruelty in itself - born of the desire to reduce the number of refugees from already overcrowded camps, and to alleviate mounting political pressure on the government as a result of growing antipathy towards the Rohingya from the local population. 

Hundreds of Rohingya refugees' homes destroyed, after devastating fire rips through camp

While it's easy - and of course justified - to point finger at Bangladesh, responsibility for the continued crisis also lies with the United Nations, ASEAN and world and regional powers. Collectively, they have done nothing meaningful to hold Myanmar to account for its atrocities against the Rohingya, failing to do anything that would pave the way for the Rohingya to return home safely. 

Instead they've now become victims of an 'out of sight is out of mind' policy. 

"The refugees have been refusing to move to this remote island Bhasan Char since the relocation plan was revealed," Nay San Lwin, co-founder of Free Rohingya Coalition. "Many have said they were moving there against their will when the first batch of 1,642 refugees were transported in the first week of December 2020." 

Lwin also expressed particular concern that the UN or other humanitarian bodies have been excluded from the relocation process, leading him to fear that the refugees will be isolated and never allowed to return to Cox's Bazaar to see their loved ones.

"All refugees want to live near the Myanmar border as they don't want to be far away from their homeland. As refugees have no choice, they are now saying 'We just pray floods don't kill us'," said Lwin. 

This is a genuine fear, given 143,000 inhabitants of the island were killed when a cyclone produced a 15-foot tidal wave in 1991, although the Bangladeshi government claims a recently constructed 6.5 foot embankment spanning 7.5 miles will mitigate the threat from future weather events. 

There are fears the refugees will be isolated and never allowed to return to Cox's Bazaar to see their loved ones

Ultimately, stranding already traumatised genocide survivors on a remote island, one prone to flooding and disease, constitutes yet another depressing gap between the international community's promise, and practice in halting and preventing genocide. 

To fulfil its promise of "never again", the UN as a collective or UN member states must increase its pressure on the government of Myanmar, either via sanctions or other diplomatic means. Anything less will not only deprive the Rohingya from returning home, but also will see them abandoned on an island, out of sight and out of mind. 

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.