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Why relocating rohingyas is not the answer

(Photo: Andrew Day Photography)

By C R Abrar
July 13, 2015

Over the last several months there have been sporadic media reports that the government was mulling the idea of relocating the Rohingyas from the Teknaf-Cox's Bazar region. The reports inform that 500 acres of state land have been identified in island sites of Hatia and Subarnachar of Noakhali district. The District Commissioner (DC) of Noakhali who has been assigned the responsibility for selecting the site has told the media that “a plan to relocate them (the Rohingyas) to an isolated area is under process” and that the project is being implemented under the supervision of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. He added “law and order” and “social harmony” would be important considerations in choosing the camp site/s. The DC claimed that relocating the Rohingyas would lead to a reduction of crime rate in Cox's Bazar by 80 percent.

In May 2015, the Head of the Government's Rohingya Refugee Cell confirmed such media reports by emphatically stating, “The relocation of the Rohingya camps will definitely take place”. He stated that the government wants tourism to flourish and this move was prompted by concerns that the camps were holding back tourism in Cox's Bazar. “It is being done for the sake of the refugees' betterment and for the benefit of the country's economy”, he asserted.

The decision to relocate the Rohingyas did not receive favourable response from any quarter. One may say at best the move elicited skepticism to negative response from different stakeholders.

The Rohingya refugees reacted sharply to the proposed plan. They claimed that it would only make life worse for them; as it is, they have been languishing in the camps for decades. They urged the Bangladesh government and the international community to focus on the root causes of their plight so that they could return home in Myanmar.

The UNHCR, the mandated agency for the protection of refugees, has been cautious in its response. It insisted that such a scheme has to be voluntary if it were to succeed. “The success of the plan would depend on what will be on offer in the new location (for the refugees) and if the refugees would like to be there”, observed a spokesperson of the refugee agency. The UNHCR representative in Bangladesh has firmly stated that her agency would not want to be associated with any forced relocation. “We have no idea about the plans, whether there will be camps or not, whether it will be voluntary or forced, or whether the refugees will be given work activities or not”, she noted. She observed that if the refugees gave informed consent to the idea and were happy to move then she saw no problem in the execution of the project. However, “If the refugees do not want to go, it would be very contentious”, she stated.

The UNHCR acknowledged that the unregistered Rohingyas have “a valid claim to international protection” and were also “persons of concern” to the agency. The government has thus far declined to grant the agency's request for “unrestricted access to the unregistered Rohingyas”. The UN agency head in Dhaka stated that she had recently made a verbal request to the government seeking permission to provide assistance to the “most vulnerable of the undocumented Rohinyga population”.

The Rohingya relocation plan has come under fire from the inhabitants of the proposed sites. In June, an alliance of Noakhali residents including Children of Hatiya and Hatiya Students Welfare Association held a demonstration and human chain at the Hatiya Press Club premises. They opposed the plan to relocate the Rohingyas and instead demanded the rehabilitation of the local landless people. It was reported that they chanted xenophobic debasing slogans such as 'Riot monger Rohingyas have no place in peaceful Hatiya' and 'We do not want transfer of the carbuncle called Rohingyas to Hatiya'.

The decision to relocate the Rohingyas raises an important question. It has been premised on the perception that the Rohingyas are at the core of criminal activities and their presence in Cox's Bazar–Teknaf region is undermining the development of tourism. So far, little evidence has been furnished in support of such allegation. No independent study has validated this much-circulated impression. The claim is very much in tune with the general propensity to blame migrants and refugees for all ills that may exist in a host community and the Rohingyas are no exception.

Like that in mainstream local Bangladeshi community, criminal elements may be present among the Rohingyas. However, if one takes into consideration the conditions the undocumented Rohingyas are made to endure, one would be aware why some members of the community may take recourse to wrong doing. The absence of identity documents and inability to access education, healthcare, livelihood and legal procedure, have created a situation of extreme vulnerability to exploitation and ill-treatment. The RMMRU-RPC 2014 study on the unregistered Rohingyas has documented cases highlighting how protection needs of this community get severely compromised. In one instance, the fear of a 5-year sentence for violating the Passport Act and possible deportation had deterred parents to file a complaint against a group of locals who had raped their teenaged daughter.

One would argue that Bangladesh authorities' failure to appreciate the protection needs and its unwillingness to conduct status determination of the unregistered Rohingyas have created a condition in which a section of the Rohingyas might have gotten drawn into undesirable activities. That does not in any way justify branding the whole community as criminally oriented and consequently their transfer to “an isolated island”.

Over the years, investigative reporting of Bangladeshi media has amply demonstrated that kingpins of drug and human trafficking and smuggling syndicates operating in the region are the Arakan-based Rohingyas, locally powerful Bangladeshis and their international patrons. Most enjoy political patronage of powerful quarters and thrive on the support of errant law enforcers. If the administration is genuinely committed to improving the law and order situation of Cox's Bazar–Teknaf region to develop tourism, then time has come to decisively act against these syndicates. Relocating the Rohingyas would amount to nothing more than whipping the wrong horse. Such a move will also send a wrong message to the international community at a time when focus is on Myanmar for committing "crimes against humanity" on the Rohingyas.

The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He researches and writes on migration and rights issues.

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