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Fresh Rohingya relocation plan divides refugees

Bangladesh government revives plan to move volunteers to remote Bhasan Char island

Fresh Rohingya relocation plan divides refugees

A Rohingya man sits at the doorway of his shelter at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh on Sept. 2, 2018. Bangladesh’s fresh plan for relocating Rohingya to an island has drawn a mixed reaction. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews)

Bangladesh’s government has refloated a plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal, triggering mixed reactions from refugees.

Officials say preparations are underway to start moving refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char (Floating Island) from early next month.

Facilities on the island including roads, cluster housing and tidal surge embankments, developed over the past three years, are ready to accommodate about 100,000 refugees, Shah Kamal, secretary of the disaster management and relief ministry, told reporters on Oct. 20, during a visit to Cox’s Bazar.

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Kamal said many Rohingya refugees were ready to relocate to the island from overcrowded camps but stressed that relocation would be “completely voluntary.”

Mizanur Rahman, an additional commissioner of the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, said preliminary work had started.

“In line with the statement and instructions of the secretary, we are gathering information about refugees willing to move to Bhasan Char to prepare a list. Those willing to move voluntarily will be divided into groups for relocation,” Rahman told ucanews.

Muhammad Hanif (not his real name), 26, a Rohingya in Kutupalong refugee camp, is undecided over relocation.

“Personally, I don’t want to go to Bhasan Char voluntarily, but I will move if Bangladesh’s government asks me to go there because they have allowed us to stay in this country and we must follow what they decide for us,” said Hanif, who moved to the camp with his mother in 2017.

“I know that some neighboring Rohingya families are interested in moving and they are free to have their choice.”

Hossen Ahmed, 55, a Rohingya community leader at Balukhali refugee camp, said he is not interested in moving to the island.

“I have heard about this plan but I don’t want to go. It is true conditions in the camp are not good, but it is still safe and we have settled well. We have to start all over again in the new place, which is not possible,” Hossen, a father of eight who moved to Bangladesh in 2016, told ucanews.

A video screenshot shows an aerial view of cluster housing on Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh that emerged from the sea about two decades ago. (Photo courtesy of VOA News) 

Overcrowded and unsanitary

Bangla Tribune, a popular Bangladeshi online news portal, published a report on Oct. 20 that showed a list of 17 refugee families from camps in Cox’s Bazar who had signed up for relocation.

Relocation to Bhasan Char is a temporary solution acceptable on humanitarian grounds, said Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.

“The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary, and there are risks of sickness, declining morality and criminality including drug abuse and conflicts. Moving some people to the island will lessen pressure on existing camps, given that they have good facilities and better living conditions,” Father Sen told ucanews.

The priest said government measures such as relocation of refugees would not suffice in solving the Rohingya crisis.

“Ours is an overcrowded and resource-strained country which cannot afford to assist a large refugee population for a longer period. The government must emphasize more on international engagements to put pressure on Myanmar for a dignified repatriation of Rohingya to their homeland,” the priest added.   

Bhasan Char, previously called Thengar Char, is an uninhabited, muddy islet situated in Noakhali district in southeast Bangladesh. It is believed to have emerged from the Bay of Bengal two decades ago. It is cut off from land and only accessible through a two-hour boat journey.

The island is prone to flooding and storms during the monsoon season. However, in recent years the government has spent more than US$280 million on developing the island for human habitation.

The government first came up with the plan in 2015 but later backed off amid criticism from aid agencies and human rights groups.

The plan was revived following two failed attempts for repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar in November 2018 and August this year.

Bangladesh hosts more than one million Rohingya Muslims in more than two dozen camps in Cox’s Bazar. Most fled their homes in Myanmar following military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017 that that United Nations has described as genocide.

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