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Uncertainty over Bangladesh's Rohingya relocation plan

Aid agencies won't help move refugees to an island they describe as 'remote, flood-prone and uninhabitable'

ucanews reporter, Dhaka

ucanews reporter, Dhaka

Updated: November 08, 2019 03:30 AM GMT
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Uncertainty over Bangladesh's Rohingya relocation plan

Rohingya women at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. The relocation of hundreds of refugees to Bhasan Char is in doubt due to aid agencies’ concerns over the conditions awaiting them. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/ucanews)

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Bangladesh’s plan to relocate hundreds of Rohingya refugees to a remote island is in doubt after authorities apparently failed to gain the support of international communities, including the United Nations.

Officials in the South Asian nation had planned to start transferring about 100,000 refugees from their camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char (Floating Island) in the Bay of Bengal from the first day of November.

The mass movement has yet to start, however, with local and international media reporting that the Bangladesh government had failed to convince UN agencies of their plan, leading to yet more uncertainty for the Muslim minority group.

Bangladeshi authorities have held recent meetings with international aid groups, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Program (WFP).

It appears the flurry of meetings has still not yielded any productive results, with the aid agencies not agreeing to support moving refugees to an island they described as “remote, flood-prone and uninhabitable.”

Bhasan Char is an island at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal and only emerged from the sea about two decades ago. It is cut off from the mainland and the only way to reach it is a three-hour boat trip from the southern coast of Bangladesh.

Dhaka has repeatedly claimed the relocation plan is aimed at lessening the burden on refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where about one million Rohingya have been living since fleeing deadly military crackdowns in Rakhine state of Myanmar in 2017.

Earlier, Bangladeshi officials said that facilities on the island included roads, cluster housing and tidal surge embankments, all developed over the past three years at a cost to taxpayers of the equivalent of US$280 million.

'Prison-like conditions'

The picture it has painted of the kind of life awaiting the Rohingya is not shared by the international community, however.

In November 2018, undercover footage obtained by British newspaper The Guardian showed the “prison-like concrete camps ” that awaited the refugees.

“As seen in the footage, which was filmed this month, families will be housed in concrete breeze-block rooms, which measure 2 by 2.5 meters, and have small barred windows. There is one bathroom per block, with each block made up of around 25 housing units, each unit for one family," the newspaper reported.

“Access to anyone other than day laborers is strictly prohibited and the island is under the tight control of the navy. Only select UN figures and Bangladesh government officials have been allowed to see the conditions on the island and no official photos or details of the Bhasan Char development have been released.”

Mahabub Alam Talukder, head of the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, termed the failure to kick off the process as “disappointing.”

“We have facilities in place and hundreds of refugees signed up to move to the island voluntarily,” Talukder told ucanews. “It is not clear why UN agencies are still reluctant to cooperate.”

The official said discussions with aid agencies would continue. “We hope that aid groups realize our intention is good and [that they] support the plan. We have continued to collect the names of refugees willing to move there.”

Some Rohingya families were willing to relocate because they mistakenly believed it would secure them better lives, said Muhammad Rezwan Khan, a Rohingya community leader in the Kutupalong refugee camp.

“I know some families have signed up for relocation but my family won’t move away from here,” Khan, 35, a father of four, told ucanews. “When the time comes, we will go back to Myanmar, but nowhere else. Our life is relatively safe and peaceful here.”

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