Mohammad Ponir Hossain / REUTERS Bangladeshi coast guards on Thengar Char, February 2017. 

The Trouble With Thengar Char

Letter From Dhaka

The island known as Thengar Char appeared in the Bay of Bengal just 11 years ago, formed by the one billion tons of silt that flow every year from the peaks of the Himalayas to the turbid waters of Bangladesh’s Meghna estuary.

At the time of its discovery, lawmakers considered the island, along with other land formations emerging on the coast, a potential answer to Bangladesh’s perennial problem of land scarcity. The country, which already has the world’s highest population density, could soon lose land—as much as 17 percent as sea levels rise, according to experts. Climatologists warned that the new islands were no solution, though, since they are prone to savage weather. During the June–September monsoon, moreover, most of Thengar Char is submerged. The area is dangerous for other reasons, too. Trafficking routes converge around the island, and criminals roam its waters.

As a result, talk of populating Thengar Char died off.  A decade later, however, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is looking to the island to resolve another crisis. In Bangladesh’s southeast, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, have carved out an uneasy existence. The Rohingya, which make up two percent of Myanmar’s population, are ethnic Bengalis, the descendants of Indian immigrants. Myanmar considers them illegal and does not recognize them as an official ethnic group; denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless. Rohingya settlements in northwestern Rakhine State are subject to security sweeps and brutal attacks by government security forces and hard-line Buddhists. Rights groups have reported summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and mass rapes. Finding these conditions unbearable, Rohingyas have fled to neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, where they are considered an enormous drain on resources, including land.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya would be ferried to a muddy island to live in precarious conditions.

And so, on January 26, the government issued an order directing officials to relocate Rohingya refugees  to Thengar Char, prompting outrage from rights groups who warned that, if carried out, the scheme would almost certainly imperil lives. But Bangladesh is keen to forge ahead with the plan, seeing it as an easy way to mitigate tensions between Rohingya and Bangladeshi host communities. According to an official statement, the plan would also seek to prevent the intermingling of Rohingya with Bangladeshis, and it even goes so far as to order the arrest of Rohingya found outside approved areas. This is not the first time such a threat has been made. The government proposed a similar measure last year, but the scheme was swiftly suspended after widespread criticism from rights groups.

It was revived last month, though, following the Myanmar military’s October counterinsurgency campaign, which, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration, prompted the flight of over 65,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh. These migrants were added to the pre-existing population of between 200,000 and 500,000 (there are no official statistics of the total number of Rohingya in Bangladesh) who have steadily poured across the frontier since 1992.

Like Naypyidaw, Dhaka considers the Rohingya illegal migrants rather than refugees, which means that they enjoy none of the protections—asylum, education, and so on—that come with refugee status. According to a high-ranking border official, in response to the recent uptick in migration, Bangladesh transferred security personnel from the south to fortify the border areas and to ward off Rohingya paddling across the marsh toward the mainland. “We always work to ensure that they cannot come here,” Abuzar Al Zahid, the commanding officer of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), a paramilitary force of the Home Ministry, told me. 

But Zahid conceded that despite the force’s best efforts, the border remained porous. Even under normal circumstances, border personnel intercept an average of 3,000–4,000 migrants per year. By law, the BGB is required to prosecute each person for entering illegally. “But if we did that,” Zahid said, “we would have to file thousands of cases—it becomes unmanageable.” 

Andrew Biraj / REUTERS A Rohingya refugee camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, June 2012.

THE RISKS OF RELOCATION 

Given the impossibility of sealing the borders, containment of the Rohingya on Thengar Char seemed attractive. But “there is a lot of division,” said Salma Ali, who heads the Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association, which provides legal counsel to Rohingya. On one side, “the local Bangladeshis support the plan—they’ve had to suffer firsthand the strain on resources because of the refugees for so many years.” On the other side, she continued, are the Rohingya, who don’t want to go.

Many Bangladeshis believe that the Rohingya have brought a wave of crime. “The arrival of the Rohingya has lead to many problems,” said Zahid, the BGB commander. He echoed the points raised by the foreign minister, who argued that a disproportionate number of refugees have been arrested for prostitution, illegal arms trading, and drug smuggling. Police records obtained by the BGB show that only a small number of Rohingya have been taken in. Seven were arrested in Teknaf last year for possessing weapons with ammunition, down from the eleven arrested in 2015. Many more were caught smuggling yaba, drugs containing a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine that are manufactured in Myanmar and trafficked to clients in Thailand and China. According to official Bangladeshi records, there were 359 drug-related arrests last year, with nearly $29 million worth of yaba confiscated. “Rohingya are employed as carriers, and they bring them into Bangladesh,” added Zahid.

Ordinary Rohingya are loath to relocate, especially to Thengar Char.

But ordinary Rohingya are loath to relocate, especially to Thengar Char. “We are afraid to go there because most people are telling us there are cyclones and earthquakes,” Dudu Miah, the chairman of the management committee of one refugee camp, told me. “But we have no ability to say no to the government. This is not our country, after all.” Rohingya interviewed expressed concern not only about erratic weather, but also about the pirates known to kidnap fishermen in the area for ransom.

Human rights organizations were unequivocal in their belief that the plan would bring about catastrophe. “This is a human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making, and the Bangladesh government should be ashamed for even considering it, much less asking for a budget for it from every international donor they come across,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, referring to meetings held by the foreign minister earlier this month with diplomats to request financial support to carry out the transfer. “What Bangladesh is really proposing,” Robertson added, “is to put the Rohingya out of sight and out of mind on an island, and hope they are forgotten by [the] international community.”

If the plan is realized as the government envisages, tens of thousands of Rohingya, whether they wanted to or not, would be ferried to a muddy island to live in precarious conditions, exposed to tropical cyclones, storm surges, and flooding for half the year. They would remain isolated, with only rudimentary infrastructure and little access to food (apart from government handouts), jobs, and the mainland. Surrounded by the Bangladeshi army, their movements would be monitored, and they would be under constant threat from pirates. 

Mohammad Ponir Hossain / REUTERS A view of Thengar Char, February 2017.

OFFSHORED

For its part, the UN refugee agency, which provides basic services to 30,000 registered refugees in Bangladesh in two official camps, recommended that any relocation plan be carried out through a consultative and voluntary process, after its feasibility is assessed. In public and private statements, the agency’s country representative in Bangladesh, Shinji Kubo, noted that a better plan would be to simply register and document the Rohingya in Bangladesh no matter where they are. “This helps the government to know who is on its soil, and helps humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance to those who need it.”

The government has yet to give clear answers to major logistical questions, such as how many refugees the island can support, how they are to be ferried to the island, and from which of the myriad camps Rohingya will be plucked for transfer. “These questions are being studied,” said Khondaker M. Rezaul Karim, the top administrator in Hatiya subdistrict (which includes Thengar Char), and a member of the committee tasked by the cabinet to appraise the feasibility of the transfer. Calling it a “temporary rehabilitation,” Karim said the plan was in its primary stages. “I have submitted a report to [the prime minister’s office] saying it is possible to rehabilitate them,” he said, “but I’ve noted that the availability of food and other basic necessities must be created, as there is no possibility for agriculture. Everything must be supplied from the mainland.”

Karim estimates that the island, which is around 116 square miles, might support as many as 50,000 unregistered Rohingya. “Until now, no one is living there; it’s an open space.” He could not give an estimate of how much the scheme would cost. Asked about the fears expressed by the refugees, Karim said the army and coast guard would be on “strict surveillance” to ward off criminals. The government, meanwhile, would build an embankment to mitigate flooding and homes using “cyclone-friendly” materials.  

Other government officials privately expressed misgivings. “The ground is too soft to support sturdy structures, and the weather changes erratically,” said a forestry department official who was involved in planting mangroves on Thengar Char. “In my opinion, no, it is not inhabitable.” Maminul Haq Sarker, a geomorphologist with the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, has been observing new land formations in the Bay of Bengal for over a decade. In a 2010 study, he concluded that the newest formation had been built up by the accretion of sediments after a devastating 8.5-magnitude earthquake struck Assam in the 1950s. “This sort of island formation is very common, and as the land develops, people do start to live there,” he said. “But they have to be evacuated during the rising tides—the risk is always very high for them.”

It remains to be seen whether Dhaka will transfer Rohingyas to Thengar Char anytime soon. It is possible that the government will yield once more to pressure from rights groups, or that it will find developing the island too expensive or technically challenging. Much will depend on whether Bangladesh can actually shore up international support to help subsidize the plan. So far, no country has volunteered donor funds. Rohingya interviewed said they were resigned to accepting whatever hand fate dealt them, whether they liked it or not. Mohamed Tayyab, a refugee from Balu Khali camp, said that “if the government decides this is good for them, then it has to be good for us. All we want is to live in peace, wherever that is.”  

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