UN Officials Endorse Bangladesh’s Program to Move Rohingya to Island

Jesmin Papri
UN Officials Endorse Bangladesh’s Program to Move Rohingya to Island Senior UNHCR officials Gillian Triggs (center) and Raouf Mazou (left) respond to questions from reporters in Dhaka as Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen looks on, June 2, 2021.
Jesmin Papri/Dhaka

United Nations officials on Wednesday for the first time endorsed Bangladesh’s decision to relocate Rohingya to a remote island, but said economic activities should be created for residents of the “isolated” site in the Bay of Bengal.

The comments came after hundreds of Rohingya protested during a visit by two senior officials of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR to the island, Bhashan Char, on Monday.

“If anyone compares the living conditions in Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char, (I would say) Bhashan Char is much better,” said Raouf Mazou, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for operations, referring to a district of southeastern Bangladesh where about 1 million Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar are sheltering in squalid and densely populated camps and settlements.

Mazou and his colleague Gillian Triggs, the assistant high commissioner for protection, visited Bhashan Char before traveling to refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar on Tuesday as part of a four-day Bangladesh trip, which they wrapped up on Wednesday.

The pair said the international community needed to ensure that those refugees already living on Bhashan Char and more who move there from the mainland camps could live in “dignity.” 

“The government has made a very important investment in Bhashan Char. The housing that has been developed by the government is much better,” Mazou told a press conference in Dhaka, while noting that those on the island could feel “isolated.”

The refugee population in and around Cox’s Bazar includes more than 740,000 who fled after violent attacks against Rohingya by Burmese military and security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017.

About 19,000 Rohingya have relocated since December 2020 to Bhashan Char, a low-lying island where the government constructed a housing complex to accommodate as many as 100,000 refugees. The government says that they moved there voluntarily as part of Bangladesh’s efforts to ease congestion in the mainland camps.

Mazou said there must be economic activities for the refugees.

He also said the U.N. would continue to have a presence in the Cox’s Bazar camps and work with the government to ensure assistance to refugees, emphasizing economic activities apart from education and health care.

“Livelihood and skills training opportunities will provide refugees with a sense of purpose and autonomy while they are in Bangladesh, while preparing them for reintegration when conditions allow them to return home,” Mazou said.

Triggs said Rohingya who relocate to the island must do so voluntarily.

“Bhashan Char has some potential, though the human and protection elements of refugees living there must be fully considered,” Triggs said. “They should have freedom of movement on the island and must be granted the possibility to return to Cox’s Bazar and to maintain family connections with those in the camps.”

Before talking to reporters in Dhaka, the U.N. officials met with Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen.

He noted that Bangladesh had tried to repatriate the Rohingya to Myanmar.

“It’s almost four years. No one is repatriated,” Momen said.

The Bangladesh official urged the U.N. officials to focus on taking Rohingya leaders to Rakhine state to allow them to see the situation there.

Nearly 850 people have been killed and nearly 4,500 have been arrested in Myanmar since Feb. 1 when the Burmese military overthrew the democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Raouf Mazou (right), joined by other officials from the U.N. refugee agency, listens to Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Shah Rezwan Hayet during a visit to a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar, June 1, 2021. [Sunil Barua/BenarNews]

Islanders’ Dissatisfaction

When Mazou, Triggs and other officials arrived at Bhashan Char on Monday, between 500 and 600 staged a protest that turned violent, according to police.

Some of the protesters wielded brick bats and vandalized buildings and property there, authorities said. Some injuries were reported in clashes between police and protesters.

UNHCR issued a statement about the incident on Monday, expressing concern about reports of violence and injuries.

“The safety and wellbeing of refugees is our main priority and we continue to urgently seek additional information on the condition of those affected and urge that they receive adequate medical assistance,” Louise Donovan, spokeswoman for UNHCR’s Dhaka office, told BenarNews at the time.

According to Rohingya living on the island, the protest occurred because members of the refugee community wanted to vent their frustration over the lack of jobs, money, or adequate medical care while living in confinement on the remote island and being cut off from Bangladeshi society.

“We only got the opportunity to fish,” Nurul Islam, a Rohingya leader on Bhashan Char, told BenarNews on Wednesday, adding the refugees were led to believe that they could farm cattle and have other agricultural opportunities.

As for fishing, that too has been taken away because some Rohingya had attempted to escape from the island.

Nurul Islam said the Rohingya were promised payments for moving to Bhashan Char, but had received only 5,000 taka (U.S. $59) each. 

M. Mahe Alam, the officer-in-charge of the police station on Bhashan Char, told BenarNews that he heard that about 100 Rohingya had fled the island, but he could not be sure if that number was correct.

‘A very good environment’

Meanwhile, Delwar Hossain, an international relations professor at Dhaka University, described the visit to the island by the senior U.N. officials as a plus for Bangladesh.

“Bhashan Char is a very good environment. The government kept telling the world this,” he told BenarNews. “Now by visiting in person, the U.N. officials understand the situation.”

Throughout their trip to Bangladesh, Mazou and Triggs reiterated UNHCR’s appreciation to the government and the people of Bangladesh for the country’s humanitarian spirit toward the Rohingya.

They also spoke of the urgent need for comprehensive solutions including the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

“While Bangladesh has shown humanity and solidarity, in line with the guiding principles of the Global Compact on Refugees, the international community must step up and give practical effect to the obligation to share responsibility, and to protect refugees and support the host Bangladeshi government,” Triggs said in a statement posted on UNHCR’s website.

Sharif Khiam in Dhaka and Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.


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