Bangladesh to Start Sending Rohingya Refugees to Remote Island This Week

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh to Start Sending Rohingya Refugees to Remote Island This Week A Rohingya women and her family sit in a bus as they wait to be escorted from a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to a transit camp en route to Bhashan Char Island, Dec. 2, 2020.
[Abdur Rahman/BenarNews]

Bangladesh hopes to begin moving Rohingya from crowded camps along its southeastern border with Myanmar to a remote Bay of Bengal island this week, officials and refugees said Wednesday, although human rights groups have criticized the plan.

In response, the United Nations called on Bangladesh to ensure that the refugees “make a free and informed decision” about the move offshore from Cox’s Bazar district, and complained it had not been involved in the preparations.

“The first batch of the refugees who wanted to go voluntarily will be taken there within the first week of December,” Mohammad Shamsud Douza, an additional commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation, told BenarNews.

“Some 2,500 Rohingya people are likely to be relocated to Bhashan Char. Hopefully, the relocation will start by the first week of December, preferably between Dec. 3 and 4,” said Mosharraf Hossain, an additional inspector general of the armed police battalion.

According to two Rohingya, the government plans to take them from their refugee camps to a transit point in nearby Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, after which they will be escorted to Bhashan Char.

“Two families from my camp have already left for a transit point at Ukhia at noon today. After the necessary health checks, they will be sent to Bhashan Char,” Mohammad Enamullah, a refugee leader of the Shamlapur camp in Teknaf told BenarNews on Wednesday.

The island is not habitable or safe from severe weather such as cyclones, international humanitarian organizations had warned, alleging that refugees were being forced to move.

“The Rohingya families consented to be relocated to Bhashan Char. No Rohingya will be sent to Bhashan Char against their will,” Douza said.

Bangladesh’s plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char is “short-sighted and inhumane,” said Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International.

“The proposed move also comes while cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal is still ongoing. As the devastation wrought by Cyclone Amphan demonstrated this summer, super cyclones are the way of the future, and conditions on the isolated island may be too dangerous for the Rohingya," Sullivan said in a statement.

"Bangladesh should halt any plans to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char until these concerns are addressed. The government of Bangladesh deserves praise for all it has done to provide refuge to the Rohingya. It should not change course now by taking a step so blatantly at odds with the well-being of this persecuted population.”

In its statement, the U.N. emphasized that refugees who chose to move to Bhashan Char should have basic rights and services on the island, and be allowed to travel freely back to the mainland.

Foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen criticized the statement from the U.N., saying the world body instead should direct its energies toward ensuring the Rohingya can safely repatriate to Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“The U.N. should not focus on improving the conditions in Bangladesh. They should work to improve the conditions in the homeland of the Rohingya in Rakhine state in Myanmar,” Momen said.

Bangladesh is housing some 1 million Rohingya, who fled from violence in neighboring Myanmar, in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar. Of those, more than 740,000 escaped a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, beginning in August 2017.

‘I do not know what awaits’

Refugees told BenarNews on Wednesday that they were packed and ready to move to Bhashan Char, and they were hopeful about the move away from sprawling and densely crowded refugee camps.

“We have been told to take preparations to go to Bhashan Char on Thursday. We are ready,” said Sharmin Akter, a resident of a camp in Teknaf. “We have heard from camp leaders that life in Bhashan Char will be better. We have been told that we will get land for farming, besides accommodation. So, we have decided to go there with the hope for a better life.”

Salamat Ullah, a resident of Shamlapur camp, said “life here is full of sufferings.”

“So I am going to Bhashan Char with my spouse and children, hoping for a better life. I do not know what awaits,” he told BenarNews.

The government had said it spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on the island. Authorities said the facilities on the island were better than in the refugee camps.

United Nations review

Meanwhile, the United Nations reiterated that it was willing to conduct a comprehensive review of the conditions on Bhashan Char – a necessary step before any relocation there.

“These independent United Nations assessments would review the safety, feasibility and sustainability of Bhashan Char as a place for refugees to live,” the statement said.

Human rights groups have called for a U.N. review and raised dozens of issues that they say need to be dealt with to make Bhashan Char safe for habitation, including protection from cyclones and tidal surges.

The government had yet to decide when such a visit would happen, M. Khurshed Alam, a maritime affairs secretary at the foreign ministry, told BenarNews.



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