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Resettlement in the concentration camp

“There is no noise here,” writes an anonymous fugitive who has recorded his impressions for the Guardian. Only when children play, let some life enter.

The anonymous writer is one of the first Rohingya to be transported from the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh to the island of Bhasan Char.

The single-storey buildings would all look the same. There are some higher houses whose upper floors refugees are not allowed to enter, except during a storm. “Maybe you think we’re going to kill ourselves?”, writes the author.

Another anonymous photographer illustrated the letter with dreary black-and-white images showing long rows of buildings and empty streets. Other media show the same in color. This does not sound encouraging and there is not much information.

Public is undesirable

It should soon become more lively. In early December 2020, Bangladesh began relocating Rohingya from refugee camps on the Burmese border to the remote island of Bhasan Char. Between 1500 and 2000 Rohingya have already been brought to the flat island in the Bay of Bengal, 100,000 are expected to relocate altogether.

The secrecy is no coincidence. Public is not welcome. This is shown by the example of the photographer Abdul Karam, who photographed the buses that were supposed to take resettlers from the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazaar to the port city of Chittagong, where the boats leave for Bhasan Char. He was arrested and held for at least a week.

The resettlement is controversial. He is voluntarily on the island, writes “Anonymous”. Some others are not so sure. Human rights organizations like HRW report that at least some of the new residents did not voluntarily go to the 40 square kilometer island. Others reported great pressure being exerted on them. The United Nations, which takes care of refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, has long resisted the resettlement planned since 2015, now the resettlement began without the UN’s consent.

Off to the island in the flood zone

The representatives of the United Nations have security concerns in particular. Bhasan Char was formed only about 20 years ago from sediments carried into the Gulf by the River Meghna.

The island, located 60 kilometers from the mainland, is located in an area where cyclones occur again and again, which in all probability will increase in intensity and frequency in the future.

There are considerable doubts about the permanent habitability of the island. In emergencies and in bad weather, the road to the mainland is too far. It is unclear whether the resettled refugees can leave the island if they want to.

Hardly any information from Bhasan Char

100,000 Rohingya will live on Bhasan Char as soon as possible, and there would be room for more if it were extended, says the architect of the complex. The government in Dhaka has invested 350 million dollars on Bhasan Char, including the construction of a three meter high dike. Opinions differ as to whether this is sufficient in the event of a flood.

Apart from the police, the army and the new inhabitants, only a few people could see what it looks like on the remote island. Access to the media is restricted, there are only a few images. Reporters from the BBC, for example, took an escorted tour of the island, listened to power point lectures, photographed a lighthouse and a small garden, the red roofs of the still empty buildings from above.

Corruption and human rights violations

Otherwise there is only little information. The first 300 inhabitants of Bhasan Char were boat refugees who tried in vain to get to Malaysia from Cox’s bazaar. They were brought to the island in May 2020, initially reportedly for a 14-day quarantine. She would rather leave the island today than tomorrow, said one woman. Others reported corruption, human rights violations, and poor medical care.

News that has also penetrated to Cox’s bazaar. There, the original refugee camp has now also extended to surrounding forests and orchards. On Bhasan Char there are houses instead of tents and bamboo huts as well as electricity and sewerage, but in an island prison the refugees do not want to live. Many want to stay at the border with Myanmar because they hope to return one day.

Aid organizations have limited access to “Paradise”

The United Nations doubts whether Bhasan Char can safely house 100,000 people. Their representatives did not get access to the island in order to make an assessment. Human rights organizations demand that the resettlement be stopped immediately. Entering the island is only possible for aid organizations with prior permission, so no independent observation can take place.

Government officials regularly emphasize the amenities of the new refugee island and called it, among other things,“paradise”. They often point out that no one is forced to go there. A year and a half ago it sounded different, he thought it was possible to resettle without UN approval, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told Deutsche Welle.

For Bangladesh, it is an escape to the front

For Bangladesh, resettlement is a solution to an increasingly urgent problem. It has been almost four years since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine province fled political and religious persecution to Bangladesh. Bangladesh welcomed them in a friendly way at first, and the flow of refugees has hardly diminished since then.

Meanwhile, an estimated one million members of the Muslim minority have fled Myanmar, mainly across the state border to Bangladesh, where 200,000 Rohingya have already lived from a long-running wave of refugees. Most Rohingya are not recognized as nationals by Bangladesh or Myanmar.

In the world’s largest refugee camp Kutupalong in the district of Cox’s Bazar on the border with Myanmar as well as various offshoots, there are currently about 750,000 people living there. The hygienic conditions and the safety situation are precarious. Crime, human trafficking and drug trafficking are increasing. Bangladesh reacted with restrictions, so refugees can no longer buy SIM cards and may not leave the camp temporarily.

A solution in Myanmar is not in sight

Many international voices say that a problem that arose in Myanmar must also be solved in Myanmar. However, it does not look like that at the moment. A return is hardly possible for the Rohingya. They are still persecuted in Myanmar and had virtually no right to vote in recent elections. Return attempts on the part of Bangladesh were boycotted. The fear of renewed violence was too great.