While You Weren't Looking

If history has taught us one thing, it’s that while we’re focused on one crisis, the next is just around the corner. A weekly update on emerging global stories, written by Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon. Delivered Monday.

Ignoring Criticism, Bangladesh Begins Resettling Rohingya

Human rights groups have already voiced serious concerns about the plan to move thousands of refugees to an uninhabited island.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Rohingya refugees board a Bangladesh Navy ship to be transported to the island of Bhasan Char in Chittagong, Bangladesh, on Dec. 4.
Rohingya refugees board a Bangladesh Navy ship to be transported to the island of Bhasan Char in Chittagong, Bangladesh, on Dec. 4. -/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Concerns grow over an artificial island for refugees in Bangladesh, India’s farmers get militant in the face of crisis, and Japan and Russia quarrel over wartime legacies. 

If you would like to receive While You Weren’t Looking in your inbox on Mondays, please sign up here.

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Concerns grow over an artificial island for refugees in Bangladesh, India’s farmers get militant in the face of crisis, and Japan and Russia quarrel over wartime legacies. 

If you would like to receive While You Weren’t Looking in your inbox on Mondays, please sign up here.


Rights Groups Voice Concerns About Rohingya Resettlement

Authorities in Bangladesh have begun transporting thousands of Rohingya refugees from camps to a previously uninhabited and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. Rights groups are concerned that many are being moved against their will. Some 1,600 people were taken to the island of Bhasan Char on Friday. The island, whose name means “floating island,” first emerged from silt in the estuary over 20 years ago. The government of Bangladesh hopes to resettle 100,000 people there to ease pressure on mainland refugee camps.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group, fled Myanmar beginning in 2017 following a brutal military campaign, which the United Nations has described as having “genocidal intent.” Bangladesh took in around 1 million Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom live what is thought to be the largest refugee camp in the world, near the small city of Cox’s Bazar.

Bangladesh suffers from a critical shortage of land and has one of the highest population densities in the world. The Bangladeshi authorities said that the Rohingya participating in the move had given their consent, but some refugees have previously told human rights groups that they had been compelled to participate in the plan.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the refugees would have access to “all modern amenities, year-round fresh water, beautiful lake and proper infrastructure”—which would be an improvement on the flimsy and overcrowded camp accommodation. But refugee advocates have questioned the island’s ability to withstand the cyclones and seasonal flooding. A request by rights groups to allow a U.N. technical team to assess the safety and sustainability of the island has gone unanswered.

Approximately 300 refugees currently living on the island have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education and have been prevented from returning to their families in refugee camps. Refugees and health care workers have also raised serious concerns about a lack of comprehensive health care on the island.

“The relocation of so many #Rohingya refugees to a remote island, which is still off limits to everyone including rights groups and journalists without prior permission, poses grave concerns about independent human rights monitoring,” Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s campaigner for South Asia, wrote on Twitter.


What We’re Following

 India’s farming strike. Farmers in India called for a nationwide strike starting Tuesday, vowing to intensify protests against controversial new agriculture laws. The government argues that the new laws passed in September would allow farmers to sell produce directly to corporations, but farmers—the majority of whom are smallholders—fear that it will remove safeguards from exploitation.

Protesting farmers blocked roads and railways in India’s north before converging on New Delhi last month. With some 60 percent of the Indian population dependent on agriculture, the backlash poses a real test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Talks aimed at resolving the standoff failed on Saturday, as protest leaders have rejected the government’s offer to amend the laws, calling instead for a complete repeal of the legislation.

Havana syndrome. Strange health problems including dizziness, vertigo, and memory loss experienced by U.S. diplomats and CIA officers working in Cuba, China, and Russia were likely caused by directed, pulsed radio frequency energy, according to a study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The study, which was commissioned by the State Department and released Saturday, is the most comprehensive account to date of the likely cause of the debilitating health issues. U.S. officials have previously said they suspect Russian attacks may be responsible.

Hondurans seek aid. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández traveled to Washington last week to lobby for assistance from the U.S. government and international institutions after Hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated part of the country, displacing some 100,000 Hondurans. On Friday Honduras, following a similar move by Guatemala last month, filed a request to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) protections currently offered to almost 80,000 Hondurans within the United States.

TPS offers temporary protection from deportation and the ability to work legally to people from countries reeling from armed conflicts or natural disasters. The Trump administration has sought to end the policy, but in an interview with the Washington Post, Hernández said that ending TPS now would deprive Honduras of much-needed remittances as the country’s economy suffers the effect of the hurricanes.

Venezuela elections hit opposition. Pro-Nicolás Maduro candidates swept Sunday’s legislative elections in Venezuela, which were boycotted by the country’s opposition leaders. The results will enable Maduro to further consolidate his power, as the National Assembly was the last major lever of power in the country not dominated by his party and allies. The results will come as a blow to the Venezuelan opposition, whose leader Juan Guaidó had been recognized by over 50 countries including the United States as the country’s rightful leader.

Guaidó’s recognition hinged on his role as president of the National Assembly, whom the constitution states serves as interim leader in the event that the president dies or has their mandate revoked. Maduro’s reelection in 2018 was widely regarded as rigged. The mandate of opposition lawmakers currently elected will expire on Jan. 5. Reuters reported last week that the interim opposition government led by Guaidó was discussing scaling back its operations.


Keep an Eye On

The UAE in Libya. The United Arab Emirates, one of the United States’ closest military allies in the Middle East, may be helping to fund the Russian mercenary group Wagner in Libya, according to a report issued late last month by the Pentagon’s inspector general for counterterrorism operations in Africa. The assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency comes as congressional Democrats have voiced concern about the Trump administration’s plan to sell $23 billion of F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba categorically denied the allegations made in the Pentagon report. 

Japan, Russia dispute WW2 island seizure. Last Tuesday, Russia announced that it had deployed a number of its new S-300V4 missile defense systems to the disputed Kuril Islands near Japan. After declaring war on Japan just before the end of World War II, the Soviet Union seized control of the islands and deported some 17,000 Japanese residents. As a result of the territorial dispute, Russia and Japan never formally signed a peace treaty to end the war. Russia has a military presence on the islands, but the deployment of the missile defense systems, reportedly for combat duty, is likely to ruffle feathers in Tokyo.

 Denmark plans fossil fuel end. On Friday, Denmark began the first major oil-producing nation to announce that it would end oil and gas exploration in its waters by 2050, as it seeks to meet European Union obligations to become carbon neutral by the same year. Since Britain left the EU, Denmark is currently the bloc’s top oil producer. The move is expected to cost the country $2.1 billion in revenue. 


That’s it for this week. 

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Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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