Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar arrive in Bangladesh in September 2017 after fleeing a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine. Many refugees have expressed skepticism about how they will fare when relocated to Bhasan Char. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
For several weeks, state officials in Bangladesh have been visiting refugee camps in Cox's Bazar to convince hundreds of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar about the merits of a plan to relocate them to a remote and uninhabited island that could be a natural disaster risk.
The Rohingya have attended meetings that included talks from officials and video screenings on how their lives will improve once they settle on Bhasan Char, also known as "Floating Island."
The government wants to relocate 100,000 refugees from next month.
Despite promises of better accommodation, a safer living environment, improved job prospects and freedom of movement, most Rohingya remain unconvinced.
The island's location is the main headache for the beleaguered Muslim minority, which fled to Bangladesh in droves to escape military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017 in their home state of Rakhine in western Myanmar.
Abdur Rahim, 52, used to serve as a primary school teacher in Buthidaung town in Rakhine. He moved to Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in 2017 with his six-member family.
Currently, he is involved with an advocacy group called the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights.
The activist has attended sessions on the relocation plan, but like many Rohingya he is dreading the move.
"We don't know how the government is going to select the refugees who will be sent there, but everyone I have talked to is fearful," Rahim told ucanews.com.
"We know this is an uninhabited, low-lying and flood-prone place, and it gets very hot during the summer. Our lives may be at risk if we move there as we are not used to such an environment."
However, he said he appreciated the government's promises of more opportunities to earn a living from agriculture, cattle and poultry farming, and fishing on the island.
Another nagging concern for the community, he said, is that the move may delay their repatriation to Myanmar, which some critics have blasted as being unsustainable as they are still believed to be unwelcome in the country.
"We don't want to stay here [in Bangladesh] for a long time. We want to go home. If anyone is willing to move to the island, that's their choice, but personally I don't agree with the plan," he said.
Mohammad Rezwan, 26, moved to Kutupalong camp with his parents and brothers in 2017. He is also loath to experience island life.
"My family and I are not interested in moving to Bhasan Char as our lives are comfortable in the camp," Rezwan told ucanews.com.
"It's true the camps are overcrowded, but life is far better here than back home where we faced persecution. I think that instead of this relocation plan the government should work more with the international community to pressure Myanmar to create a favorable situation in Rakhine.
"We just want to return home and live there in safety, peace and with dignity."
A Rohingya girl carries chairs to help her father set up tea stall at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Sept. 11, 2017. The Bangladesh government has been pressing ahead with a plan to send thousands of refugees to Bhasan Char. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)
Bhasan Char is an uninhabited, muddy islet situated in Noakhali district in southeast Bangladesh. It emerged from the sea two decades ago and is cut off from the land, meaning the only way to reach it is by boat. The island is prone to flooding and storms during the monsoon season from June to September.
The government first came up with the plan in 2015 but later backed off amid criticism from aid agencies and human rights groups.
However, in recent years it has spent over US$280 million developing the island for human habitation, including the construction of embankments and houses to accommodate the refugees, local media have reported.
The relocation plan is primarily slated to start in April but a fixed date has not yet been confirmed, said Muhammad Abul Kalam, head of Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission.
"We are engaged in primary groundwork to complete all the preparations. We have a plan to relocate 100,000 refugees there, but the process of selecting them also has not been finalized yet," he said.
"However, we can assure the refugees that moving there will be voluntary. No one will be forced to go."
To pave the way and allay their fears, sessions aimed at convincing the refugees about the merits of the move are now underway in the camps, he noted.
"We have briefed them verbally and shown them videos so that they can see how better their lives will be in Bhasan Char," he told ucanews.com.
They can make a living from agriculture, raising livestock and fishing without any restrictions. We hope our efforts will help to change their negative mindset about the island."
Aid agencies concerned
U.N. and other aid agencies have also expressed concern and have yet to give the relocation plan their official stamp of approval.
They report "ongoing discussions" with Dhaka about the "critical protection and operational issues" that need to be addressed before any voluntary relocation can take place.
For example, "the refugees must be assured of safe and sustainable living conditions if they chose to relocate," Caroline Gluck, regional information officer for the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told Arab News on March 18.
In a recent statement, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, said the move to a not-yet-habitable island could trigger a new crisis.
Lee visited Bangladesh in January and made a trip to the island during her stay.
"There are a number of things that remain unknown to me, even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable," Lee told the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 11.
"Ill-planned relocation, and relocations without the consent of the refugees concerned, have the potential to create a new crisis," she said.
Pintu William Gomes, head of disaster management at the Catholic charity Caritas, echoed those sentiments.
"Bhasan Char is a high-risk area for natural disasters as it is located at the mouth of a river. The relocation plan should be meticulously reviewed before execution," he told ucanews.com.
He suggested the government take a group of Rohingya there on a de facto scouting mission so that they could report their findings and thoughts to other refugees back in the camps.
"Bangladesh has drawn global appreciation for sheltering stateless Rohingya refugees," Gomes said. "I believe the government is well aware of this [positive] reputation and it won't do anything that might tarnish the good image of Bangladesh."