A group of Muslim-minority Rohingya refugees has agreed to leave camps in the Cox’s Bazar region and move to an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal as part of a Bangladesh government relocation program to address overcrowding, an official said.
Enamur Rahman, the state minister in charge of disaster management and relief, said 350 Rohingya families or about 3,000 people have responded positively to the government’s request that they relocate to Bhashan Char by early November.
“Look, we have provided the Rohingya refugees detailed information about Bhashan Char. In the past, they did not agree to go there. Now, already 350 families have consented to go. More families have been showing interest,” Rahman told BenarNews on Sunday.
“If everything goes as planned, by the first week of November we will start relocating the first batch of the 350 families,” he said.
Mahbub Alam Talukder, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, said his office started preparing a list of Rohingya on Oct. 16.
“We are getting good response regarding Bhashan Char relocation. More and more people want to go,” he said.
The government announced plans almost two years ago to relocate about 100,000 Rohingya to the island. Since then the government has been constructing a housing complex, a retaining wall to protect from flooding and cyclone shelters.
The officer in-charge of Jadimura camp in Teknaf said repatriation commission officials were not successful in previous efforts to persuade Rohingya to go to Bhashan Char.
“This time, we are getting very good response from the Rohingya regarding their relocation. Thirty families from Jadimura camp have consented to go,” Md. Khaled Hossain told BenarNews.
Refugees give mixed views
Some refugees see this as an opportunity to improve their lives.
“Here, the rooms are very small. We have four people living in a room five feet by six feet,” Kutupalong camp resident Fatema Begum told BenarNews.
“I have seen a video on Bhashan Char. The rooms look wide and comfortable. So, we have decided to go there wilfully,” she said.
Another resident said he is optimistic about opportunities on the island.
“Here we have no work. [There] we can cultivate land, rear cattle and set up fish farms. I have decided to go there,” Md Alam told BenarNews.
But Mohammad Juharal, a leader at the Balukhali refugee camp, said some refugees want to see Bhashan Char before committing to moving there.
“Some people have suggested the Bangladeshi government allow us to visit the island just to observe the situation there. If it is acceptable, we may go. If it is not, we won’t,” he told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
Kutupalong camp leader Aung Myaing said some Rohingya are more interested in returning to their homes in Myanmar.
“Most of us who arrived after 2017 want to go back to Myanmar. The engineers don’t endorse the settlements on that island because the high risks of flooding. So most of the refugees refuse to move there,” he told RFA.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled a government crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state beginning in August 2017 and are among the 1.2 million living in 34 camps in and around Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. Efforts by Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya failed as those cleared to go have said they do not want to return.
UN: Relocation must be voluntary
As Bhashan Char has been prone to flooding and cyclones, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set conditions to allow for relocation.
“Following recent developments, including reports that government officials in the camps have begun identifying refugees for relocation, the U.N. has again reached out to the government seeking clarifications on its relocation plan and the next steps in the process,” UNHCR spokeswoman Louise Donovan told BenarNews.
She said relocation must be voluntary.
“To make a decision, refugees need to receive full information regarding safety issues and living conditions on Bhashan Char. Their views must be sought and their concerns addressed as part of a consultative process between the government and the refugee community,” she said.
Aye Lwin, an influential Muslim leader from Myanmar and a member of a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority, said the refugees should not be relocated involuntarily.
“The number one condition in the repatriation agreement says it should be safe and dignified for the refugees to live,” he told RFA. “I believe that forcible relocation to that island is totally unacceptable.”