Bangladesh Hopes to Start Moving Rohingya to Island in November

By Muktadir Rashid   24 September 2018

DHAKA — The relocation of Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Bhasanchar Island could start in November if a team of Bangladeshi and UN officials agrees that camps being built on the flood-prone island are habitable, a Bangladeshi official said.

The team visited the island, located in the estuary of the Meghna River where it meets the Bay of Bengal, on Sunday to inspect progress.

“We have seen the location physically along with the representatives from the UN agencies and other experts. We are very happy with the progress. The UN officials were also happy,” Muhammad Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, head of refugee affairs at the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry, said afterward.

“We thought it [Bhasanchar] was located in the sea, but it is not…. Huge work is going on there to build the cyclone shelter. Nearly 1,500 workers are working there at the moment,” he said. “I was in a dilemma, but now it’s over.”

Although the site was protected from cyclones by mangrove forests, he said, a 21-food embankment was also being built.

“We do not want to push anyone towards any death trap,” Chowdhury said.

According to the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was scheduled to inaugurate the facilities on Oct. 3.

“We are not taking Rohingya there on Oct. 3,” Chowdhury said. “First we will take some of the Majhi [Rohingya community leaders] to the island to show them what has been built for them, and then we will create awareness among them to ensure the relocation process is voluntary.”

Mohammed Abul Kalam Azad, Bangladesh’s Rohingya relief and repatriation commissioner in Cox’s Bazar, said a list of volunteers would be compiled only after the inspection team submits its report and the government issues instructions.

The UN declined to comment on the relocation plan on Sunday.

In August, Mia Seppo, the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, told the Irrawaddy that discussions with the government on its “concerns of safety, voluntariness and sustainability” were ongoing.

Bangladesh formed a 10-member inspection team headed by Muhammad Mohsin, an additional secretary at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, to decide whether Bhasanchar was suitable for relocation earlier this year. The body comprises five members each from the government and the UN.

CR Abrar, a migration and refugee expert in Bangladesh, said authorities must ensure that all relocations are voluntary and complained that the Rohingya themselves were being left out of the discussion.

“Where is the voice of the Rohingya?” he said.

In June, a report by the Special Branch of the Bangladesh police force said that only 13 percent of surveyed Rohingya refugees wanted to move from Cox’s Bazar to the Bhasanchar. Among their main concerns was the island’s isolation, which they worry will limit their access to medicine and other relief supplies, and being separated from relatives.

Muhamed Rafique, a refugee, said he would prefer to return to Myanmar if the government were to grant Rohingya citizenship, something it has been loath to do.

“I will not go there [to Bhasanchar], where cyclones can hit us,” said Muhammad Ali, a community leader in one of the Cox’s Bazar camps. “Rohingya who have been living here for some years may be interested in going, but we are not. We are fine here, and we want to return to our land with dignity and rights.”

Authorities first proposed resettling Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to the island in 2015 to cope with a recent influx from Myanmar.

Bangladesh asked the UN to help fund the plan after the sudden arrival of another 700,000 refugees in late 2017 pushed the population of the Cox’s Bazar camps past 1 million.