Bangladesh to move Rohingya refugees to remote island

Plan has caused fear and outrage among refugees, academics and relief workers
Bangladesh to move Rohingya refugees to remote island

Rohingya refugee Din Mohammad reacts as he talks about his experience before he fled to Bangladesh during an interview in a refugee camp on Nov. 25. Mohammad, 50, was among thousands of Rohingya that arrived in Bangladesh after Myanmar's army attacked their villages in Rakhine State following deadly assaults on border posts by suspected Rohingya militants on Oct. 9. (Photo by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

The Bangladesh government's plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote, uninhabited and flood-prone island to prevent them from "intermingling with Bangladeshi citizens" has created fear and tension.

The government has set up a committee to help identify and relocate undocumented Rohingya Muslims to Thengar Char near Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal. Hatiya is in the estuary of the River Meghna and a nine-hour journey from the camps where the Rohingya have taken shelter in coastal districts including Cox's Bazar and Chittagong after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

Bangladesh has ordered officials in the border districts to identify Myanmar nationals who have "illegally infiltrated" the country.

"It has to be assured that by taking preventive measures [the refugees] cannot spread out and mix with the locals. The identified refugees should be arrested or pushed back to the camps if they try to go out beyond the assigned boundary," said the official order dated Jan. 26.

Bangladesh first floated the idea of relocating the refugees in 2015 despite allegations that the island was not ready for human habitation.

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The plan has sparked fear and outrage among refugees.

"We are really sad and afraid. We have not come here from Myanmar to stay forever, but for temporary shelter so we can go back home once the situation gets better," said Muhammad Abu Sayed, a Rohingya community leader at the unregistered Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar district. "We have heard the relocation site is uninhibited and flood-prone, and it is surely going to make our lives miserable," he said.

Muhammad Kabir, a Rohingya leader from an unregistered refugee camp in Leda also in Cox's Bazar said he was "terribly frightened."

"Despite poverty and a lack of basic human necessities, we have lived a peaceful and secure life here for years. We could go out for work, albeit secretly, and go to hospital for treatment during sickness," said Kabir, a father of eight who fled to Bangladesh eight years ago.

Although reluctant to move, Kabir said that refugees like him have no choice. "We are stateless people, surviving on the mercy of others," he said.

Shyamol Chandra Majumder, a manager from Caritas' Chittagong regional branch said the plan was "unrealistic and risky."

"Whatever happened to refugees over the years, at least they lived peacefully and made livelihoods although their income has been meager. The relocation would put their lives and livelihoods at risk," Majumder told ucanews.com.

"You can't start a new civilization overnight; you need to develop infrastructure like schools, hospitals, markets and create job opportunities. The government should have done it here, instead of pushing them to a remote place," he added.

Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, also said that relocation is not going to solve the problem.

"Bangladesh, like the international community, has ignored the Rohingya problem for a long time, partly due to lack of resources and global attention. Now, if the refugees are relocated, the government must ensure their lives are better in the new place, not worse. Otherwise, it will tarnish country's image," he said. 

U Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a Rohingya political party in Myanmar whose members are barred from running for office, said that he doesn't support the plan.

"I think the Bangladesh government needs to discuss this with the United Nations. And both the Bangladesh and Myanmar government would need to verify those who fled from Rakhine," said Kyaw Min.

Dubbed the "world's most persecuted people" by the U.N., the stateless Rohingya have endured persecution and discrimination at the hands of radical Buddhists and security forces in their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar for decades. More recently the U.N. says 69,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh to escape Myanmar security operations, which have been conducted following deadly attacks by alleged Rohingya militants on Myanmar border posts in Rakhine on Oct. 9.

Currently, some 32,000 registered refugees live in two official camps at Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox's Bazar district, depending on aid from the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Bangladesh government for survival.

About 200,000-300,000 undocumented refugees live in deplorable conditions in half a dozen informal, squatter settlements that sprawl near the official camps. Bangladesh puts the figure at around 500,000.

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