UN Urges Bangladesh to Move Rohingya to Bay of Bengal Island Gradually

Jesmin Papri
UN Urges Bangladesh to Move Rohingya to Bay of Bengal Island Gradually Rohingya walk by housing built for them by Bangladesh’s government on Bhashan Char Island in Noakhali district, March 13, 2021.

The United Nations refugee agency is urging Bangladesh to slow down its relocation of Rohingya to a low-lying island because measures to protect residents from storms and flooding are not fully in place, UNHCR in Dhaka told BenarNews on Friday.

Meanwhile, the foreign minister said, international agencies must help foot the cost of housing what could eventually be 100,000 refugees on Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal. So far, Bangladesh’s government has covered that cost.

A UNHCR team visited the island March 17-20 and recognized that the government had made “extensive investments” in setting up infrastructure and safeguards on the flood-prone island for the thousands of Rohingya who have moved there, said Charlie Goodlake, a spokesman for the U.N. agency in Dhaka.

“At the same time, the U.N. team believes it is critical that the ongoing extension of the embankment is completed as early as possible and to full specification which, when complete, would reduce the risk of storm surges and flooding on the island,” Goodlake told BenarNews in a statement.

In addition, it was also essential to put in place an emergency management plan for severe weather events, including building up stocks of essential supplies and goods on the island, UNHCR said.

“The U.N. team recommends to the government that any future relocations are undertaken in a gradual and phased manner, which would help to ensure that the governance structure, facilities and services available on Bhashan Char are commensurate to the needs of Rohingya refugees living there,” Goodlake said.

Since December, the government has moved a total of 18,304 Rohingya from crowded camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district. The camps host around 1 million refugees who fled persecution in Rakhine state, next-door in Myanmar. 

The government had said it spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment to protect the island’s population from flooding, and other infrastructure in a bid to relieve pressure on the crowded mainland camps.

An official told BenarNews in December 2018 that the embankment would gradually be made 21 feet high, although he did not say how tall the embankment was at the time.

Last December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said Bhashan Char was secure from cyclones, as was demonstrated during the deadly Cyclone Amphan in May 2020.

“The flood and shore protection measures with the 12.1 km- [7.5 mile-] long and sufficiently higher embankment designed by [British firm] HR Wallingford secures the island from massive tidal waves and cyclones,” the ministry said in a statement.

“This is supplemented by the installation of modern hydrographic monitoring and warning system that can provide early warning on any natural hazards and enable prior evacuation.”


Rohingya children play on a swing set on Bhashan Char Island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh, March 13, 2021. [BenarNews]

Funds for Rohingya on island

Bangladesh’s government wants international funds raised through the U.N. Joint Response Plan to be used for the Rohingya on Bhashan Char as well, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said on Friday.

If funds are focused only on humanitarian efforts in Cox’s Bazar, the government will demand a share of the funds for facilities on the island, he said.

“If the humanitarian agencies do not support the Rohingya in Bhashan Char, we will demand 10 percent of those funds,” Momen told BenarNews, even as he acknowledged that he did not know how the UNHCR spends the funds it collects for the Rohingya and their host communities.

He said U.N. agencies were obligated to provide services for the Rohingya regardless of where the refugees live. And U.N. member-states, he said, would not provide funds if humanitarian agencies did not provide services to Rohingya in Bhashan Char as well.

In response, Goodlake, the UNHCR’s Dhaka spokesman, said that if the U.N. were to “operationally engage” in the island, “any related funding requirements for Bhashan Char would need to be agreed in close consultation with relevant stakeholders, notably with the donor community and the government.”

The U.N. team that visited the island last month said it “clearly” recognized the prevailing humanitarian and protection needs of the Rohingya refugees already relocated to Bhashan Char, he said.

“The U.N. has therefore proposed further discussions with the government regarding its future operational engagement on Bhashan Char, including on the policies that govern the life and wellbeing of Rohingya refugees on the island,” Goodlake said.

Momen’s comments about funding for Bhashan Char followed months-long criticism of Bangladesh’s plan to move Rohingya to the off-shore site.

International humanitarian organizations have expressed concern about the safety and on-site facilities on the island. Their fears were not mitigated by what was perceived as reluctance by Bangladesh to allow the U.N. to conduct a technical assessment of the island.

But many Rohingya who moved to Bhashan Char have told BenarNews that they were happy to have left the congested Cox’s Bazar camps. Living conditions on Bhashan Char were better, they said, and their children had wide open spaces where they could play.

And now that a U.N. team and three other international organizations have visited the island, many Bangladeshi analysts believe that any worries about the island’s habitability would be allayed.

The U.N. team which visited Bhashan Char found that many of the Rohingya were engaged in constructive activities and felt optimistic about their lives there, Goodlake acknowledged.

U.S. special envoy John Kerry, who visited Bangladesh last week, heaped praise on Bangladesh for its “extraordinary” generosity in sheltering the refugees from Myanmar, and mentioned Dhaka’s decision to relocate thousands of Rohingya to Bhashan Char.

“Bangladesh has been one of the greatest helping hands, you’ve given them an island,” Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the climate, told reporters in Dhaka on April 9.


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