The Muslim Rohingya constitute the largest population of Muslims in Buddhist Myanmar. Following attacks by Rohingya rebels on more than 30 police posts, Myanmar troops, along with Buddhist mobs, burned down Rohingya villages and killed thousands of civilians, catalyzing the beginning of the Rohingya’s mass exodus to Bangladesh on August 25, 2017. Around 890,000 refugees currently live in camps along Cox’s Bazar, a coastal region in Eastern Bangladesh. The influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh has incited the government to relocate more than 19,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, an island constructed from the silt of the Meghan River.

Though the Bangladesh government claims that socioeconomic circumstances will gradually improve as Bhasan Char forms into a community, the Rohingya lack access to the most basic necessities. The Rohingya almost entirely rely on foreign aid to Bangladesh to promote security and improve living conditions in camps.

Conditions on Bhasan Char

Bhasan Char, with its low elevation, faces higher vulnerability to floods and storms. The Bangladesh government prohibits the construction of stronger shelters to signify the temporary nature of the stay. In August 2021, a monsoon displaced over 21,000 refugees and destroyed about 6,418 shelters. On average, Bhasan Char encounters three to four cyclones per year, and in 2020, the Category Five cyclone Amphan formed in the Bay of Bengal, wreaking havoc on nearby populations, not far from Bhasan Char.

Furthermore, the island occasionally disappears completely underwater and is eroding away at a rate of half a kilometer per year. Bhasan Char’s isolation, lack of storm and flood protection and other environmental predicaments could put the Rohingya at serious risk, with accompanying bad weather causing the island to be inaccessible by boats or helicopter. The risks remain unaccounted for by the Bangladesh government.

The Most Basic Human Necessities

The Rohingya additionally lack access to the most basic human necessities, such as uncontaminated water, food, freedom of movement and education. The Rohingya are currently experiencing a shortage of drinking water on the island due to clogged sewage facilities and inundated wells, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Not only is there a shortage, but the water also may contain water-borne diseases, of which there are already cases reported in the camps. Deemed “an island jail in the middle of the sea” by HRW, Bhasan Char is also facing food scarcity. These circumstances exacerbate the living conditions of the Rohingya during the aforementioned floods and storms. Since the island is completely cut off from the rest of the world during bad weather, adequate food, water and medical care become even more limited and fatality rates surge.

According to reports, the Bangladeshi government restricts the Rohingya from exiting the island once they arrive, punishing those who try to escape by beating them. No secondary schools, informal or formal, exist in Bhasan Char and the government bans Rohingya from teaching the language and curriculum of Bangladesh, leaving the 450,000 Rohingya children with no access to education, according to HRW.  Instead, the Bangladeshi government has constructed “learning centers,” temporary bamboo structures that can accommodate up to 40 children at a time, but many of these have since rotted.

Looking Forward: Foreign Aid

In October 2021, the United Nations (U.N.) signed an agreement with the Bangladesh government guaranteeing concerted efforts to improve the services on the island, Al Jazeera reports.

Another way to further support the Rohingya would be to relocate more refugees from Bangladesh to other countries instead of Bhasan Char. Canada, for instance, has previously demonstrated interest in hosting the Rohingya. In addition, with the help of the U.N., Malaysia facilitated the resettlement of more than 10,000 Rohingya in wealthier countries like the United States (U.S.), Canada, Japan and New Zealand over the past decade.

Furthermore, the international community could continue to chip in monetary support. Donations have previously gone toward humanitarian sectors such as food, education and health care. Since 2017, the U.S. has provided $2 billion in assistance to the Rohingya. The U.S. recently provided $23.8 million in April 2023, showing continued interest from the international community.

Bolstering foreign aid to Bangladesh could bring about lasting improved living conditions for the Rohingya, supplying them with adequate nutrition and better-quality education.

Lauren Liu

Photo: Unsplash