The Irrawaddy

Bangladesh: UN Helping Assess Island Relocation Plan for Rohingya Refugees

Construction workers stack stones on the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh February 14, 2018. Picture taken February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer - RC1B2045D5C0

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — The UN is helping Bangladesh assess the viability of a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal for the relocation of some of the 1 million Rohingya refugees currently sheltering in Cox’s Bazar, according to a government official.

A recent survey says most of the refugees don’t want to go.

The Prime Minister’s Office formed a 10-member committee earlier this year headed by Muhammad Mohsin, an additional secretary at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, to decide if Bhasan Char island was suitable for relocation. The committee, comprised of five members each from the Bangladesh government and the UN, held its first meeting in June.

“The joint committee will inspect the island and will report to the government on whether it is habitable,” Muhammad Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, head of refugee affairs at the Disaster Management Ministry, told The Irrawaddy last week.

He said the full committee has not yet held a second meeting because the chairman was abroad.

However, some Bangladeshi officials held a separate meeting with Nojibur Rahman, principal secretary to the prime minister, on Aug. 8 to review progress.

Habibul Kabir, who attended the meeting with Najibur, said refugees, journalists and others would be taken to visit the island before any relocations begin to show off the preparations being made to fortify the camp against cyclones.

“There is no agreed role for UN agencies in government plans for relocation of Rohingya to Bashan Char. We are having discussions with the government at the technical level around our concerns of safety, voluntariness and sustainability,” said Mia Seppo, the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Bangladesh.

In November, the Bangladesh Navy floated tenders for the construction of a “rehabilitation center” on Bhasan Char for Rohingya refugees.

A senior official with the Cox’s Bazar Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission said the new camp had not yet been tested in a real storm, so “we have to see how habitable it will be during and after it is hit by any cyclone.”

“Rohingya leaders will be taken to the island to see whether or not it is habitable,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

In late June, the Special Branch of the Bangladesh police force prepared a report for the Prime Minister’s Office on the results of a survey on whether Rohingya refugees were willing to relocate to Bhasan Char.

“Out 100 Rohingya, hardly 13 percent are willing to be relocated to Bhasan Char, while the remaining 87 [percent] are willing to stay in Ukhiya and Tekhnaf in Cox’s Bazar District,” the report says.

The report, seen by The Irrawaddy, gives 10 reasons why the refugees do not want to move to the island. They include the site’s isolation, which they fear will limit their access to medicine and other relief supplies and separate them from relatives.

“Many Rohingya earn their living by catching fish and collecting crabs. They believe they will not have similar opportunities when they are relocated to the island,” the report says.

It adds that many of the refugees in Ukhiya and Tekhnaf also have jobs through various UN agencies that won’t be available on Bhasan Char.

“There will be a cyclone center for them with every facility,” Habibul Kabir said. “They will be given better livelihoods there. In particular, they will be given access to the justice system.”

Muhammad Ali, however, the head of one of the refugee camps in Ukhiya, said most of the refugees were opposed to the move.

“Most of us do not want to go to the island, considering the cyclones and other vulnerabilities,” he said. “We prefer to go back to our country with dignity and citizenship rights.”

Foreign Affairs Ministry officials say they are prioritizing repatriation over relocation or resettlement in third countries.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal visited the island with senior security officials on Sept. 28 to see “how the island looks.”

On Sept. 10, Disaster Management Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya said his ministry was still considering relocating refugees to Bhasan Char until they can be repatriated to Myanmar.

Authorities first proposed resettling Rohingya refugees on the island in 2015 to cope with a recent influx of arrivals at Cox’s Bazar.

With the arrival of another 700,000 Rohingya driven out of Myanmar by a military crackdown in northern Rakhine State since August 2017, bringing the total refugee population in Cox’z Bazar to about 1 million, Bangladesh has asked the UN to help fund the relocation plan.

Bhasan Char, located in the estuary of the Meghna River, is a one-hour boat ride from Sandwip, the nearest inhabited island, and two hours from Hatiya, one of Bangladesh’s largest islands.

“We are not allowing anyone to visit the camp right at this moment, but we will have official visits once it is ready for Rohingya,” said Habibul Kabir.

This story has been updated to add a comment from the UN office in Bangladesh, which we had been unable to reach prior to the initial publication.