The world’s largest refugee camp, a densely packed agglomeration of bamboo and tarp huts with 626,000 people, sits near this town in Bangladesh. It expanded rapidly and haphazardly following an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar last August.
“Our entire village came together and settled on this spot,” said a 19-year-old refugee who arrived in September. “At first this was a jungle, but we cleared it. Now there are no trees.”
Monsoon season is here, and high winds and flooding are happening now. For months, the refugees have been busily shoring up their huts, but the camp remains vulnerable. More than 215,000 refugees in the Cox’s Bazar area are at risk of landslides and flooding, according to the U.N., with only about 21,000 having been relocated from highest-risk locations and 22,000 still at very high risk of landslides.
It is crucial to relocate the Rohingya refugees to places in Bangladesh with fewer environmental risks and adequate standards of services. But a proposed alternative by the authorities is likely far more dangerous.
The Bangladesh navy and Chinese construction crews have prepared Bhasan Char, an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal, for the transfer of 100,000 refugees from the Cox’s Bazar area; the relocation is set to begin in September. In May, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly said that because Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country, “measures are being taken for their temporary shelter in Bhasan Char. They’ll stay there until they are repatriated.”
Bhasan Char is not sustainable for human habitation and could be seriously affected by rising sea levels and storm surges. It most likely would have very limited access to education and health services, and extremely limited opportunities for livelihoods or self-sufficiency. It would unnecessarily isolate refugees. The Bangladeshi government has made no commitment to allow refugees’ freedom of movement in and out of the island. Moreover, refugees have not consented to move there.
As recently as 1999, Bhasan Char did not even exist. Formed by silt from Bangladesh’s Meghna River, the flat mangrove and grass island has been unstable and uninhabitable with a rapidly shifting shoreline for the past 20 years. Reuters reported in March that “nearby islands have a tidal range as high as six meters [19.7 feet], and a strong cyclone during a high tide would likely leave the entire island submerged, according to Golam Mahabub Sarwar of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Land.”
What is more, Bhasan Char is not the only option for relocation. According to experts who spoke with Human Rights Watch, there are six feasible relocation sites that could accommodate 263,000 people closer to the existing camp and within the containment area the government has designated to limit free movement of refugees. Although the risk of cyclones and storm surges remains in the coastal areas, these sites consist of scrubland in gentle slopes, which mitigates the risk of landslides.
The refugees I interviewed all expressed their preference to go back to Myanmar, but only when conditions allowed them to return voluntarily: citizenship, recognition of their Rohingya identity, justice for crimes committed against them, return of homes and property and assurances of security, peace and respect for their rights.
That is not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, the Bangladeshi authorities should consult with the refugees and facilitate the voluntary relocation of those who want to leave the mega camp to smaller, less densely packed camps on flat, accessible land nearby. This offers the best prospect for maintaining a sustainable, dignified life until it is safe to go home.
Bill Frelick is the refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch.