On February 1, the Myanmar military launched a coup against Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, and the rest of the country’s democratically-elected members of the National League of Democracy. The coup d’etat occurred just one day before Myanmar’s Parliament was due to swear in members who were elected during the November 2020 general election. At present, Myanmar’s fate hangs in the balance as the rest of the international community, including the United States, reacts to ongoing developments in this geopolitical stronghold.
But as the world turns its attention to Myanmar and its military, it is important to remember the Rohingya. The Rohingya have been persecuted by Myanmar’s military for decades, and in recent years, the military’s persecution of this ethnic group escalated to a point in which almost one million Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar.
In 2017, Myanmar’s military began a deadly campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that primarily lives on Myanmar’s western coast in the Rakhine state. Myanmar’s government and military have a long history of attacks against the Rohingya, which include labeling them as illegal immigrants within Myanmar, revoking their citizenship status and burning down Rohingya villages. The 2017 state-sanctioned attacks were brutal and violent, forcing nearly one million Rohingya out of Myanmar and into refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. Currently, most of the Rohingya refugee camps are in Cox’s Bazar, a city in southeastern Bangladesh. But in December 2020, Bangladesh announced that it is planning on moving up to 100,000 Rohingya to different refugee camps on an island in the Bay of Bengal. Last week, more than 1,000 Rohingya were sent to Bashan Char island, the third group mandated by the government to do so.
Right now, the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are extremely overcrowded, and the Rohingya do not have access to basic necessities, like clean drinking water or medication. Most children inside the camps are unable to go to school and over a quarter of children are malnourished. Additionally, the inadequate safety protections within the camps have made Rohingya women and children highly vulnerable to human trafficking.
Bangladesh’s decision to move members of the Rohingya to Bhashan Char, an island 24 miles off the coast of Bangladesh, close to the city of Chittagong, is an attempt to address the poor conditions in Cox’s Bazar. The island can hold up to 100,000 Rohingya refugees and has about 100 shelters, each built about 14 feet above ground to avoid the region’s monsoons. Bangladesh’s government also said that there will be hospitals staffed with medical professionals and three schools on the island.
On the surface, these new camps seem like an improvement from those in Cox’s Bazar, since the refugee camps in the city are overcrowded and undersupplied. However, several problems still exist with the new settlement plan on the island. The shelters on the island have not gone through any independent United Nations technical protection assessments to evaluate its safety and to ensure that the Rohingya will have access to certain necessities like medication and hygiene products. This is especially important since the island was previously uninhabited and does not have any established services.
And although the shelters were built above ground, they are still vulnerable to flooding since the island typically becomes partially submerged in water during the monsoon season. Moreover, Human Rights Watch said that the Rohingya could lose freedom of movement while on the island, and that there is no guarantee that nongovernmental organizations and journalists will have access to the island. Without the presence of NGOs and reporters on the island, there will be fewer advocates for the Rohingya and it will be even harder to examine the conditions they are living under.
There have also been several reports that the Rohingya have been told that those who decide to move to the island will be the first to receive repatriation in Myanmar. This is a coercive measurement used by Bangladesh’s government to get the Rohingya to move to the island and out of Cox’s Bazar, since there is no evidence that the Rohingya will be able to move back to Myanmar anytime soon. Moreover, given the political climate in Myanmar is still extremely hostile towards the Rohingya, it’s not clear that repatriation is something migrants are looking for.
The relocation of the Rohingya to this new island just adds onto the difficulties created by the Coronavirus pandemic for the refugees. Prior to the pandemic, the camps within Cox’s Bazar already lacked sufficient soap and water for hand-washing, one of the most basic necessities for disease prevention. On top of this, social distancing is essentially impossible in the camps because of how densely populated they are. Although the relocation to the island would help with population density, there is no guarantee that the Rohingya will have running water, soap, and adequate medical facilities on the island.
Moreover, many of the Rohingya do not have access to adequate information about the pandemic since Bangladesh has placed an internet ban in the camps. Abu Tahir, a Rohingya man living in Cox’s Bazar with his wife and three children, told reporters that he “is not sure about this quarantine thing” and if anything were to happen to him, he would like to “have his children and loved ones around.” While in Myanmar, the military would separate Rohingya children from their parents. While separated from their parents, many children were killed and murdered. With these experiences in mind, it makes sense that parents, like Abu Tahir, are fearful of quarenting away from their families and leaving their children. And without proper information on the virus, they are not able to learn about the necessity of quarantining to stop the spread of COVID.
Similar to the camps, there might not be internet access on the island, and without the presence of NGOs the Rohingya will have no way of understanding what is happening with the pandemic. The forced movement of the Rohingya to the new island will only further add to the trauma that they suffered when they left Myanmar. Unfortunately, this new island — pitched as a safe haven for these refugees — will fall dramatically short of improving the conditions of the Rohingya.