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Q&A: The aid policy ‘limbo’ on Bangladesh’s refugee island

‘We are stuck in this situation.’

Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS
Rohingya refugees prepare to board a ship bound for Bhasan Char island, Bangladesh, on 29 December 2020.

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Donor reluctance to fund aid on Bhasan Char, Bangladesh’s controversial island refugee camp, is preventing basic services from scaling up and leaving refugees in limbo, says the head of a leading Bangladeshi NGO.

Authorities in Bangladesh have transferred at least 24,000 Rohingya from mainland camps to the island, where aid is provided mainly by local NGOs.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, inked an agreement to support services on Bhasan Char in October 2021. A UN-led appeal for the Rohingya response, launched in late March, calls for about $100 million in funding for Bhasan Char – the first time these annual humanitarian plans have included the island.

Foreign donors still appear split on Bhasan Char, amid long-standing concerns that Rohingya are pressured to relocate there. The UK, for example, says it will contribute funding for the first time. The United States – the largest donor to the Rohingya response – says its funding “does not currently support Bhasan Char”.

Preventing funding from being used on Bhasan Char leaves healthcare and other services missing or severely inadequate, says Asif Saleh, the executive director of BRAC Bangladesh.

“We are stuck in this limbo,” Saleh told The New Humanitarian in an interview. “We are just not moving on.”

READ MORE: What others are saying about Bhasan Char

Bhasan Char remains divisive, even as some agencies sketch tentative plans to scale up.

Here’s what several donor governments and aid groups are doing, and what rights groups and some of the Rohingya themselves say:

‘We still have concerns’

The United States, by far the largest donor to the Rohingya response, announced new funding in March but said none of it is for Bhasan Char.

“The Government of Bangladesh has taken some meaningful steps toward ensuring relocations to Bhasan Char are voluntary and fully informed,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “However, we still have concerns.”

On the other hand, the UK has budgeted for Bhasan Char programmes for the first time, amounting to £2 million or about $2.6 million.

”The UK is supporting all Rohingya refugees whilst they are in Bangladesh,” a foreign office spokesperson said in a statement.

Japan’s government has earmarked more than $2 million for Bhasan Char this year for the World Food Programme and UNHCR.

The EU announced €24 million (or $26.3 million) in new aid for Bangladesh: Most of this is for the mainland camps; a smaller portion is slated for disaster preparedness around the country.

“A decision on devoting funds to [Bhasan Char] has not been yet taken,” a European Commission spokesperson said in a statement.

’Much more pressure’

Rohingya and rights groups say authorities in the mainland camps of Cox’s Bazar have stepped up already-tight restrictions on refugees in recent months – closing Rohingya-run schools, demolishing shops, and making it harder to travel.

“They are forcing the refugees indirectly,” said a Rohingya man, speaking to The New Humanitarian by phone. He asked not to be identified as the issue is sensitive.

Many of his neighbours were part of a group that moved to Bhasan Char in March. “The government is giving much more pressure to the refugees who are living in Cox’s Bazar,” he said.

‘A symptom of wider deterioration’

WFP and UNHCR are among the first UN agencies to start work on Bhasan Char. Other UN agencies are also planning responses on the island.

WFP said new funding will be used to “support general food distribution”.

UNHCR said its staff interview new Bhasan Char arrivals: “The vast majority of refugees relocated on a voluntary basis,” the agency said in a statement.

Several international NGOs recently participated in a needs assessment on Bhasan Char.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies last year said the island needed “urgent investment”. Funding can be sensitive: the federation keeps its Bhasan Char donations separate from other funding.

Médecins Sans Frontières has called Bhasan Char “a symptom of the wider deterioration” for Rohingya: “The relocation to Bhasan Char is a consequence of the failure of the international community to provide a solution to what has become a protracted refugee crisis.”

Bhasan Char remains controversial for donors and international aid groups, years after Bangladesh first proposed sending refugees to the island.

The country hosts some 900,000 Rohingya, who have fled generations of persecution in their Myanmar homeland. Bangladesh’s government has said it intends to send up to 100,000 people to the island as part of a plan to reduce the density of mainland camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Rights groups call Bhasan Char a disaster-prone “prison”. They say government efforts to convince Rohingya to move to the island are “coercive” and “misleading”, marred by threats and intimidation. Last year, at least 11 Rohingya drowned after their boat capsized when fleeing the island, Human Rights Watch said.

Saleh says there have been government “missteps”, but also genuine efforts to improve and to invest in Bhasan Char’s flood barriers and infrastructure.

In the mainland camps, meanwhile, conditions have deteriorated and government restrictions have escalated. The national mood toward the Rohingya has become “more hostile”, Saleh said.

He spoke to The New Humanitarian about how Bhasan Char has fractured the relationship between the government and international aid agencies, why he’s pushing for donors to reverse course, and why he believes this will improve conditions for Rohingya elsewhere.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: You describe an atmosphere of growing hostility toward the Rohingya. How does this affect you as a Bangladeshi NGO?

Asif Saleh: At the local level, we have to navigate the political atmosphere very carefully. The security situation has deteriorated in the camps.

For us, it’s very important that we serve the refugees wherever they are. So, from that perspective, this whole limbo situation regarding Bhasan Char – the push and pull between UN, the government, the various donors – has not really helped us.

What has happened over time has been that because of the lack of progress on this, there have been efforts to put tighter control in the camps… You have to go through a lot more approval processes and other things that require a lot of time.

It’s been three years [since] this conversation about Bhasan Char started. I think it’s really time to move on, so that everybody can start focusing on more mid-term issues. Because it’s not helping anybody. It’s not helping the people who have moved to Bhasan Char. It’s not helping the people in the rest of the camps.

The New Humanitarian: The UNHCR and government signed a memorandum of understanding on Bhasan Char last October. What do you think has gotten in the way of scaling up?

Saleh: The last six months since the MoU has been signed, the relationship between the UN and government has improved. The challenge is that the global narrative is still stuck a bit on the earlier days. As well, I think there has been some clumsy effort from the government side in terms of how some of the refugees were transferred.

Right now… we know that there have been mechanisms in place for people to visit the Cox’s Bazar camps from Bhasan Char. Government had bigger plans to move more refugees, but they are ensuring that it is completely voluntary, so the numbers have been a lot less.

But somehow there is quite a wider chatter with other human rights organisations, that has been not necessarily real-time. It’s kind of reflecting what happened in previous years.

The New Humanitarian: Let’s talk about these issues. Rights groups say recent transfers have been “coercive”, “involuntary”, and “misleading”. Fortify Rights reported refugees were threatened with aid denial. This was in January. A report in February found majhis (Rohingya leaders appointed by camp authorities) in a camp said that families would be picked randomly if there were no volunteers. That was by the International Rescue Committee, not a rights group. These and other accounts are very recent reports, all describing the same problems.

Saleh: I’m pretty sure some of the incidents that have been mentioned have happened. The question is, then, would we use this to basically completely stop this and stop the funding?

… The refugees also have mentioned to the special rapporteur [for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews], when he was visiting [in December 2021], that if there were jobs and education and good healthcare available, they would actually prefer staying in Bhasan Char because the security conditions and the overall living conditions are better.

So this is becoming a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we take a slightly broader lens and ensure that we can actually make these services available, and then leave it up to the refugees – do you want to move or not? – that would be a bit fairer assessment.

… I think some of those things absolutely have happened. But the question is now do we get stuck on that, or do we take a broader view, and ensure that we look at the situation in a slightly more comprehensive manner?

The New Humanitarian: Why not wait until there are more assurances?

Saleh: Who’s going to give that certification? This situation is going on for almost two and a half years. I think there is a responsibility from all sides to ensure this happens. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation right now: Someone has to move first.

The global narrative that is out there is extremely hostile to Bangladesh and I think that’s not fair. The countries who are opposing – none of those countries is willing to take a single one of the refugees. So if you’re not willing to take them, but you’re very eager to impose all these restrictions on them, I think it’s slightly unfair.

The New Humanitarian: Some Rohingya have chosen to go to Bhasan Char. Others think that they have no choice but to go. Others are going only because the security situation in the mainland camps has become so bad. And I know others who simply do not want to go, and they say there are people who are still being forced. Are you confident that everyone who is on Bhasan Char wants to be there?

Saleh: No. I’m not confident that everybody wants to be there. But what I’m confident of is that we can make a different story in Bhasan Char by investing in it.

We are looking at the mid- to long-term. This issue is not going away any time soon. We clearly see that there is donor fatigue coming in. There’s the Ukraine refugee crisis that has started now. So this money is going to dry up sooner than later.

… Bhasan Char can be an interesting model where [Rohingya refugees] can self-sustain by taking livelihood opportunities. So once those opportunities are created, I feel confident that a lot more refugees will look at it and see – living condition-wise and opportunity-wise – this makes sense. Right now, that investment needs to happen for that to happen.

The New Humanitarian: The government already has strict limits and restrictions on livelihoods, education, even on building materials. Why would the government allow things on Bhasan Char that they have not in the mainland camps?

Saleh: They are a lot more open when it comes to Bhasan Char. They are a lot more open about livelihoods – what they’re willing to allow in Bhasan Char.

So that’s one. The second thing: There is a lot of closing down of policy negotiation exactly because of this Bhasan Char limbo. Once this gets resolved, I think we will have a lot more opening to negotiate with the government on some of these issues.

… I think there are windows of opportunities to work with the government and negotiate with the government on all of these issues. That is why it is very essential to move past this, so that we can start those negotiations: The donors can start those negotiations; UN can start those negotiations with the government. Otherwise, we are stuck in this situation.

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