DHAKA, Bangladesh

Bangladesh remains determined to transfer 100,000 Rohingya refugees in temporary shelter to a remote island despite widespread opposition from rights groups and UN agencies.

The South Asian nation said it is set to initiate the relocation to the remote islet, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from its southwestern coast in December, citing “rising pressure” on the tourist hub of Cox’s Bazar, where 1.2 million Rohingya refugees are currently housed in camps.

A new list of food and non-food items for initiating the relocation process of Rohingya to Bhasan Char Island has been proceeded by the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner’s (RRRC).

“Our target is to relocate some 100,000 refugees in phases. We want to shift some of them [Rohingya] as early as possible, and we want to avail advantage of the approaching winter season to this effect,” said Md. Delwar Hossain, head of the Myanmar wing of Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry.

“We don’t rule out the possibility of beginning the relocation to the islet in December, considering the friendly weather in winter for such a voyage,” he told Anadolu Agency. He did not mention a date or number but confirmed the figure must be “small in number” in initial phases.

But the Dhaka Tribune newspaper quoted official sources saying that more than 1,200 Rohingyas from 500 families living in camps in Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar will be relocated to Bhasan Char in the first week of December.

Bangladesh has developed 120 cluster villages in Bhasan Char, spending 23 billion Bangladeshi takas ($272 million) to accommodate 100,000 Rohingya in the first phase.

The island is accessible only by boat and remains isolated during rough weather.

-Call for reconsideration

CR Abrar from the international relations department at Dhaka University suggested Bangladesh conduct more assessment and reconsider relocation before initiating a sensitive issue because, he said, it could hamper Bangladesh’s image on global platforms.

“The move comes at a time when pressure on Myanmar accelerated. Western countries move for imposing sanctions on Myanmar, and justice and accountability mechanisms at international justice courts get momentum, so international attention could be derived and Bangladesh could get a negative mark,” he said.

And, if Bangladesh is determined, then it must be done voluntarily having ensured there will be no pressure for relocation, he said. “Shifting Rohingya could delay the ultimate target of repatriation.”

Ansar Ali, a Rohingya leader at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, who visited the island under arrangements by the Bangladesh government, told Anadolu Agency that “If the Bangladesh government take us to anywhere we would go, but it’s our ultimate destiny to back to our home country, Myanmar. We face all these as Myanmar starts procrastination over the repatriation.”

“Bhasan Char is a beautiful Island I found when I visited, but Cox’s Bazar is what we prefer to the Islet whereas some of our people believe that relocation could hamper the repatriation,” he said.

Rights groups, including UN agencies and Amnesty International, also repeatedly urged Bangladesh to abandon plans to relocate refugees to the remote island in the Bay of Bengal, characterizing it not “safe” for human habitation and places “serious questions over this relocation procedure.”

“Although Bhasan Char is well equipped and good for living, Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar camps do not want to be relocated. They are afraid they will be isolated once relocated to the Bhasan Char,” Ro Nay San Lwin, co-founder of Free Rohingya Coalition based in the UK told Anadolu Agency.

“Traumatized refugees should not be forced to relocate. We understand the situation of the Cox’s Bazar camps but the appeals of refugees should be honored,” he said. “Pressuring Myanmar to accept them back with full citizenship and protection is the only solution.”

-Voluntary relocation

“Bangladesh officials did not force us to move, and some of the Rohingya refugees already showed their interest to be relocated and some 120,000 Rohingya have already shown interest by enlisting their names towards voluntary relocation,” said Ali, the Rohingya refugee in Cox’s Bazar.

Hossain said the number relocated will be determined based on how many [Rohingya] show interest “voluntarily and we won’t force anyone.”

Cox’s Bazar has been facing tremendous problems.

“Huge forest areas got banished, local biodiversity got hampered, water lair contained to go down, and the infrastructure of areas can hardly don half a million population whereas over one million Rohingya are there,” said Hossain,

“Our first priority is to send them [Rohingya] to their own land, Myanmar. However, there is no recent progress on the repatriation process, so we have to take some temporary measures like shifting them,” he said.

“We have assessed and constructed the big facility in Bhasan Char having consulted with international experts, and the facility showed its strength in face of three recent cyclones, so why some agencies raise questions that the island would be vulnerable for residents,” he said as he questioned the motive of those who criticize possible relocation.

The Foreign Ministry official urged rights agencies to concentrate on available repatriation rather than talking about temporary and small issues.

Abrar, however, on the issue of “no progress” on repatriation said Bangladesh should concentrate on new a diplomatic focus. “Bangladesh will have to shift its focus on the global platforms from India and China as the two countries seem to bring no good for Bangladesh and causing delay to much-awaited repatriation.”

He reproached India and China for their roles in supporting Myanmar in the global platform which he claimed was the mother of all problems with Rohingya.

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.

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