Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET on 2020-09-09
Rohingya leaders taken over the weekend to evaluate conditions on a Bay of Bengal island developed to house refugees reported the site is safe and well managed, but about 300 refugees living there since May said they are eager to move to camps on the mainland.
The 40 Rohingya leaders, representing 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, were taken to Bhashan Char by members of Bangladesh’s armed forces. Seven other Rohingya were dropped from the delegation because they fell sick, leaders said.
“I didn’t see any of the scary things I heard about the situation on the island,” Mohammad Kalam, a Rohingya leader, told BenarNews after the delegation returned. “On the contrary, the overall management of the place, including the security and safety, is very nice. I like everything I have seen.”
Bangladesh officials want to relocate 100,000 refugees to the Bhashan Char site while international humanitarian organizations have questioned the suitability of the flood-prone islet for housing refugees. They have raised dozens of issues that need addressing to make it safe for habitation, including protection from disasters including cyclones and tidal surges.
Bangladesh has spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on the island. An additional $92 million was allocated in December 2019 for raising the height of the embankment and to build an administrative building, a jetty and residential facilities for U.N. officials, Enamur Rahman, the state minister for disaster management and relief, told BenarNews at the time.
The delegation toured those facilities during the visit.
“We were shown around the embankment and other installations including the fish farming ponds, residences, mosques, health centers, schools, playgrounds and cemeteries,” Mostafa Kamal, a Rohingya leader, told BenarNews.
Another leader said he thinks some refugees might be willing to relocate to the island because of its topography.
“We think that some Rohingya might be willing to go there. Especially those who live in coastal or riverine areas in Myanmar will love this place,” Hefzur Rahman told BenarNews. “We will try to get some families from each camp to agree to go to there.”
Authorities said the facilities on the island are better than in the refugee camps where more than 740,000 Rohingya who fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar three years ago, have been living. In all, about 1 million Rohingya live in the camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.
Further assessments needed
After hearing from their leaders, other Rohingya may be interested in going to Bhashan Char, but they will be consulted individually before being put on a list for eventual relocation, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mahbub Alam Talukder told BenarNews.
“The unfounded fears of the Rohingya have disappeared after visiting Bhashan Char,” Talukder said. “The government sent them to see the rehabilitation center with their own eyes so they can make a decision [about whether they want to relocate.]”
Still, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that while such visits are good practice, thorough technical and protection assessments must be made before considering any relocation.
“Such an inspection will help the Rohingya make an informed decision about voluntary relocation to Bhashan Char,” Mostafa Mohammad Sajjad Hossain, a spokesman for the UNHCR’s Dhaka office, told BenarNews.
‘They cried a lot’
Meanwhile, members of the delegation said that many of the 306 Rohingya refugees on the island want to return to Cox’s Bazar, not because of the living conditions in Bhashan Char but because they want to be united with their families.
“I met the Rohingya on Sunday afternoon during a visit. They cried a lot,” said Rohingya leader Kamal. “Many of them have relatives in Cox’s Bazar. They have been urging the authorities to move them to the refugee camps there.”
“They told us that there was no problem with living on the island. But they feel isolated from their community.”
In May, 186 women, 96 men and 24 children arrived on the Bangladesh coast in a dinghy, leading authorities to take them to Bhashan Char, citing COVID-19 fears. Southeast Asia-based rights group Fortify Rights, alleged recently that some of the Rohingya were being detained against their will.
“No decision has been taken on them yet,” Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mahabub said.
Separately, almost 300 Rohingya Muslims were found on a beach in Indonesia’s Aceh province on Monday after having spent more than half a year at sea, officials said. They underwent COVID-19 tests and received aid after being transferred to a government building, officials said Tuesday.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that refugees from other camps would get an opportunity to assess conditions at Bhashan Char. This version also corrects the spelling of the names of reporter Sharif Khiam and photographer Mostafa Kamal