Bangladesh is holding off on its plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to an uninhabited island, a minister said Wednesday, claiming the government reached the decision after failing to get backing from the U.N. and international community.
Instead of working to transfer refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar district to Bhashan Char, a low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh will instead focus on repatriating them to Myanmar, Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management, told BenarNews.
“We have decided to hold off the plan temporarily to relocate 100,000 Rohingya to Bhashan Char,” Rahman said.
“We have not received support from U.N. agencies and the international community,” he said, without elaborating.
A United Nations spokesman did not immediately respond to a BenarNews email seeking comment.
“Now our focus is to push for repatriation, not relocation,” Rahman said.
He made the announcement less than a year after the U.N. drew up plans to help Dhaka relocate the refugees to the island, where Bangladesh has spent U.S. $280 million to construct flood walls and buildings. The idea was to help ease crowding at camps in Cox’s Bazar, where some 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are sheltering.
The population of the camps swelled after more than 740,000 refugees crossed into southeastern Bangladesh as they fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017.
In January, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, visited Bhashan Char and told reporters earlier this month that she had questioned whether the island “is truly habitable.”
A recent attempt by Dhaka and Naypyidaw to return thousands of the refugees to Myanmar on a voluntary basis collapsed in August 2019, with UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, and Bangladeshi officials saying that none of those interviewed among the 3,450 people cleared for repatriation were willing to go back.
UNHCR said it had assisted Bangladesh in interviewing the refugees on whether they wished to return to Myanmar.
Bangladesh built the facilities on Bhashan Char while aiming to relieve pressure on the sprawling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. But refugee leaders and human rights groups have criticized the relocation proposal, saying the island is flood-prone, vulnerable to frequent cyclones and could be completely submerged during a high tide.
On Tuesday, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs that the government hoped to persuade China “to press Myanmar to take the Rohingya back.”
China would likely mediate a third meeting on the Rohingya crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar that is expected to take place in March, he said.
Meanwhile, a Rohingya leader at Kutupalong camp, hailed the government’s decision to hold off on its plans to relocate refugees to the island.
“We are not sure whether we will get anything better in a place where we have never been,” Mohammad Shafiq told BenarNews.
“We, the Rohingya people, want to go back to Arakan,” he said, using the Rohingya name for Rakhine state. “Without the consent of the UNHCR, no Rohingya will move from the camps.”