Out of sight, out of mind: Rohingya to be moved to uninhabitable Island

The government of Bangladesh announced that they would move ahead with their plan to move Rohingya refugees off the mainland to uninhabitable islands.
Steve Gumaer/CC BY-NC 2.0/ Flickr

On 6 December 2017, the government of Bangladesh announced that they would move ahead with their plan to move Rohingya refugees off the mainland to remote islands. About 100,000 of over one million Rohingya refugees currently living in Bangladesh will be moved to the small island of Thengar Char, which is deserted and uninhabitable.

Moving the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to this island would not only do significantly more harm to Rohingyan refugees, who have suffered the atrocities in recent months, it would also be a fundamental violation of the right to the standard of life that includes feasible and sustainable shelter, and anything else needed for their health and well-being, which is indoctrinated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Thengar Char, an Island in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, 37 miles from the coast of Bangladesh, is not a feasible option for human habitation. The island is mostly flooded during heavy rain or monsoon season, and year round because of tidal effects from the ocean. Journalists who have visited the island, which only emerged from river silt deposited in the Bay of Bengal just a decade ago, describe it as empty and featureless, subject to cyclones and flooding. Furthermore, the island is only accessible during the winter and some believe it is a haven for pirates and other violent actors.

Bangladesh has proposed this plan in the face of an influx of refugees from Burma in recent months. Since August 25, 2017, over 600,000 Rohingya refugees had crossed the Bangladeshi border, doubling the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Systematic Exclusion

In the media, the Rohingya are often referred to as “The World’s Most Persecuted Minority.” While the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, have had a presence in Burma since the 1300’s, Burmese governments have taken every opportunity to label them as “illegal” and refuse their Burmese citizenship. This refusal became law in the 1948 Union Citizenship Act.

This systematic exclusion has turned violent on many occasions. In 1977, the Burmese government launched Operation Naga Min (Dragon King). While the government claimed that this operation was needed to register citizens in advance of a national census, in practice, the operation enabled the government to find and target Rohingya in the Rakhine State, where they were abused, raped, and murdered. At this time, 200,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where conditions did not improve significantly.

Violence and Forced Displacement

From then up until the present, the Rohingya have been forced back and forth between Bangladesh and Burma, both of whom actively disregard the Rohingya’s basic human rights. From 1995 to 2010, the Burmese government also forced the Rohingya out of their homes and into the northern Rakhine State. In 2012, the Burmese government confined the Rohingya into internment camps, where they had limited access to education, healthcare, livelihood, and shelter.

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On August 25, 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attempted to fight back with an attack in Rakhine state against 24 police posts and one army base. With little success, these attacks were countered with vicious crackdowns by the Burmese military against Rohingya civilians that have forced 600,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch, the Rohingya have seen their villages burned, babies thrown into fires, and women systematically raped by Burmese security forces.  

In a Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the Rohingya, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein suggested that genocide may have been committed against the Rohingya and the United States House of Representatives recently passed a resolution condemning ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

The Right to an Adequate Standard of Living

According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the founding doctrine of the United Nations, which both Bangladesh and Burma are party to,

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

It is clear that Bangladesh’s suggestion of moving Rohingya refugees to the island of Thengar Char is in complete violation of the Rohingya’s right to a standard of living that allows for health and well-being through housing, access to livelihoods, freedom of mobility, and many others.

The Rohingya would live without sufficient shelter, with no access to food, clothing, or medical care, and without any possibilities for economic advancement or upward mobility. It is particularly worth noting that they would be cut off from any psychological support, which is fundamentally necessary given the extreme violence they have witnessed in recent weeks. They would essentially be shipped away and left for dead.

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Not only is the forced displacement of the Rohingya to this island a violation of the Rohingya’s right to a basic standard of living, but many other guaranteed rights as well. In a recent report,  Human Rights Watch, a prominent organization that has strongly advocated for the Rohingya in the past, states that “relocation the refugees from the Cox’s Bazar area to Thengar Char island would deprive them of their rights to freedom of movement, livelihood, food and education, in violation of Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights law.”

In light of these violations, it is essential that the international community, including individual countries as well as international institutions like the United Nations, to stand up against this proposal and provide feasible alternatives for the Rohingya to finally find refuge after years of discrimination and violence.

Human Rights
Francesca Freeman

Francesca Freeman is a program assistant for the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program at the Social Science Research Council. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies and a minor in human rights. At the University of Chicago, she focused her research, writing, and advocacy work on conflict studies and early warning signs of genocide. She has previously worked on international grassroots mobilization against genocide and mass atrocities as the Student Director of STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities and as an intern for The Aegis Trust in Rwanda.
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