By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
The voluntary relocation of about 100,000 Rohingya refugees from crowded camps in southeastern Bangladesh to a recently formed sedimentary island at the mouth of the Meghna River could start by June, government officials said Thursday.
The Bangladesh Navy almost finished developing Bhashan Char, a low-lying and flood-prone island in southern Noakhali district in the Bay of Bengal. It is building shelters to accommodate refugees along with geographic features to protect them from cyclones and flooding, according to Bangladeshi officials.
“The construction and development work on Bhashan Char have been going on fast. We hope we can start relocating the Rohingya by June,” Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of a Ministry of Disaster Management unit that handles Rohingya-related matters, told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina indicated Thursday that efforts to repatriate thousands of Rohingya refugees through a bilateral agreement struck with Myanmar late last year had made no real progress, her spokesman said.
The construction work on Bhashan Char is part of a 23.12 billion taka (U.S. $280 million) plan announced by the government in November to move them from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district, which borders Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“The houses under construction on Bhashan Char will be much better in terms of facilities than the camps in Ukhia and Teknaf,” Chowdhury said, referring to the two sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar that have borne the brunt of Rohingya refugee influx from Rakhine over the years. These include at least 670,000 Rohingya since August 2017, according to U.N. estimates.
The Rohingya who go to Bhashan Char will not be sent there against their will, said Mohammad Abul Kalam, the government’s commissioner in charge of refugee relief and repatriation.
“We will not force anyone to go to Bhashan Char,” he told BenarNews. “In line with the international standards, no Rohingya will be relocated to Bhashan Char without their consent. But they will live in Bhashan Char with more facilities and safety.”
Thousands at risk of landslides, floods
On Wednesday, Shah Kamal, the government’s secretary of disaster management briefed representatives of U.N. agencies about Bangladesh’s efforts to accommodate 100,000 refugees on Bhashan Char island.
He also talked about operations under way to move others to higher ground in Cox’s Bazar to safeguard them from the potential threat of landslides and flooding, which monsoonal rains could unleash.
So far, the government has relocated more than 11,000 Rohingya, who were living in extreme danger of landslides, floods and cyclones, from hilly areas in Ukhia to safer ground adjacent to refugee camps, Chowdhury said.
A joint report published in late January by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), stated about 102,000 refugees were at risk of being affected directly by landslides and floods in the Kutupalong refugee camp alone – the largest of the camps in Cox’s Bazar – and its extension area.
“We started the work to develop Bhashan Char in December last year. Hopefully, construction of the buildings and necessary infrastructures in the first phase of the project will be finished by the end of May,” an official with the Bangladesh Navy tasked with making the island habitable told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
As many as 12,000 people were working to construct 440 buildings on the island, he said.
“We have built structures to protect the entire island from the risks of flooding and tidal surge. We have also built cyclone shelters to save them from cyclones,” he added.
PM meets Amnesty director
Meanwhile, in Dhaka on Thursday, Hasina met with Salil Shetty, the secretary-general of London-based Amnesty International after he visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
In a statement form Amnesty, he praised Bangladesh for its generosity in taking in thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. But Shetty also called on Hasina’s government to “uphold its commitment that Rohingya refugees are only returned [to Myanmar] in conditions that are safe, voluntary and dignified.”
He was referring to the bilateral deal between Dhaka and Naypyidaw last November to repatriate hundreds of thousands of the refugees to Rakhine state.
The bilateral deal called for the repatriation process to begin in late January, but the two countries have yet to repatriate any Rohingya. From a list of 8,000 refugees Bangladeshi authorities had handed over for verification by Myanmar, Naypyidaw had authorized only about 500 of them for re-entry, Kalam told BenarNews last week.
“We have taken many initiatives, but no real progress is in sight,” Hasina told Shetty during their meeting, according to her press secretary, Ihsanul Karim.
About 1 million Rohingya are sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh after having fled from spasms of violence in Rakhine.
Myanmar’s military and security forces have been widely accused of committing atrocities against Rohingya civilians during a crackdown that followed attacks on army and police posts by Rohingya insurgents in late August. Myanmar officials have denied the allegations.