Updated at 8:32 a.m. ET on 2017-02-01
Bangladesh’s government is considering moving an unknown number of Rohingya Muslim refugees from camps in the southeast to an island in the Bay of Bengal, officials said.
At least 67,000 Rohingya have poured into Cox’s Bazar district since early October as they have fled from violence across the Myanmar border in Rakhine state, Bangladesh’s foreign minister said Tuesday. The influx has added to a Rohingya refugee population that already numbered at least 300,000 people, according to government figures.
Citing a public health threat and crime, officials are talking about reviving a plan first broached in May 2015 to re-locate Rohingya refugees off-shore, according to reports.
Sources told BenarNews the government was thinking of moving an unspecified number of refugees to Thengar Char, an island prone to flooding near Hatiya, an island off Bangladesh’s southeastern coast where officials had earlier considered relocating refugees.
“There’s a fear that the influx of Rohingya Muslims from time to time will lead to a degradation of law and order situation, spread communicable diseases ... and create various social and financial problems,” according to a notice posted a few days ago on the cabinet’s website.
It said several panels were set up to examine the Rohingya influx, and that Dhaka was compiling a list of Rohingya who would be sent to Thengar Char, Reuters reported.
“Long ago, we were asked to find land to take the Rohingya out of Cox’s Bazar. We proposed 500 acres of land on Thengar Char. It developed some eight to 10 years ago,” Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Bodor Munir Chowdhury told BenarNews on Tuesday.
Two years ago, the government talked about moving 34,000 people to Hatiya island, in the Chittagong division, but that never materialized.
Thengar Char is not inhabitable, according to an official from Hatiya.
“Thengar Char is a newly emerged shoal. Pushing the Rohingya to the shoal would be another inhuman treatment,” Hatya sub-district Chairman Mahbub Morshed Liton told BenarNews.
The government should notify the Rohingya about a possible move, said C.R. Abrar, a founding member of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, a private think-tank.
“What would they do on a solitary shoal? The place must be at a minimum livable,” Abrar told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, an international commission headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan addressed reporters in Dhaka on Tuesday following a weekend visit to Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar.
The commission, which serves as an advisory panel and was created by Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is also known as the Annan Commission. But the ex-U.N. chief was not part of the three-member delegation.
“Giving citizen’s rights to the Rohingya Muslims is the key thing to solve this problem,” delegation head Ghassan Salame told reporters after meeting in Dhaka on Tuesday with civil society members at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
“Rohingya are infiltrating into Bangladesh not only [because of] religious oppression. This situation has a direct link with citizenship, rights and livelihood issues, too. Therefore, solving their citizen issue is the key,” he added.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have streamed into Cox’s Bazar in the past four months. Burmese security forces have been widely accused of targeting Rohingya in killings, rapes and acts of arson during a crackdown that followed the killings of nine border guards by suspected insurgents in October.
However, a separate commission appointed by the Myanmar government has rejected allegations that its military was committing genocide in Rakhine villages, which have been closed to Western journalists and human rights investigators.
“Recommendations of any commission cannot be implemented over night, but making public the commission’s report would bring in some positive impacts,” Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, told BenarNews, referring to the Annan Commission.
“Even some days ago, Myanmar did not recognize the Rohingya problem. An international commission has been formed after a long break; this means that they recognize it a problem,” said Abrar, of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit.
The Annan Commission, which is due to leave Bangladesh on Wednesday, also had talks with Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal.
Elsewhere, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh visited Rohingya camps in the south on Tuesday and said that her country would keep pressing Myanmar to solve the situation in Rakhine.
“Rohingya people have come to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Their roots are in Myanmar. So, the solution to their problems is in Myanmar,” Ambassador Marcia Bernicat told reporters, Bangladeshi daily Prothom Alo reported.