A Bangladesh government plan to move tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to a low-lying island off-shore is still at the “very initial stage” to receive any endorsement from the international community, a Western diplomat said after being briefed on the project.
The diplomat was among some 60 representatives of foreign diplomatic missions, inter-governmental organizations and regional blocs briefed on the controversial plan by Bangladesh’s foreign minister A.H. Mahmoud Ali in Dhaka on Sunday.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” the Western diplomat told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on condition of anonymity.
“It is in the very initial stage. We have to know details about the plan and have to see how it is look like,” the diplomat said Tuesday, describing the briefing as “informative.”
During the meeting, Minister Ali called on the international community to help Bangladesh move its resident population of more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees from camps and settlements in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district to Thengar Char. It is an undeveloped and currently uninhabitable island off the southeast coast near Chittagong.
Ali asked for international support in building infrastructure to make the island livable and accommodate the Rohingya, according to a news release from his ministry.
A government statement issued after the briefing said “the representatives of diplomatic community in general expressed their readiness to help the government implement its relocation plan as and when it is finalized.”
“They also expressed their hope that this will bring improvements in the living condition of this population,” according to the statement from the foreign ministry.
The Western diplomat said adequate preparations were necessary to implement the plan, including consultations with the Rohingyas themselves.
“You don’t put 100,000 people on an island where today there is nothing … without any preparation. It’s terrible.”
“Any decision of the government must be executed with the consent of the Rohingya,” the diplomat added.
The statement from Bangladesh said the foreign diplomats “recognized that the ultimate solution” depended on the “repatriation of these refugees from Myanmar to their homeland” and that they had “assured their full support in this regard.”
Ali told the meeting that the huge number of Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar district “has not only created formidable challenges for the authorities to manage humanitarian assistance to them but also created a number of adverse effects” in the district and adjacent areas, according to the statement.
“Citing the vulnerable nature of this population, he added that networks have emerged in this area for the purpose of human trafficking and smuggling of narcotic drugs,” it added.
Because the refugee camps were already over stretched, the authorities face a new challenge from at least 66,000 Rohingya refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh in recent months as they have fled a Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine, a state near the Bangladeshi border, Ali told the foreign diplomats.
Before the government relocates Rohingya refugees to the island, it plans to make the island livable by building roads, schools, hospitals and mosques on Thengar Char, the release quoted Ali as saying.
He had requested the international community to “render” its support in the implementation of this relocation plan “by providing assistance in developing the island and in transporting” the Rohingya refugees to their new home.
‘The place is risky’
Foreign embassies so far have not commented officially on Bangladesh’s plan, or said whether they were considering its request for assistance in implementing it.
Officials at the U.S. embassy and British High Commission in Dhaka – which represent two of Bangladesh’s sources of foreign aid – did not respond immediately to interview requests from BenarNews.
Moazzem Hossain, who chairs a local NGO, Save the Nature, raised doubts about the government’s plan.
“If they are shifted to an isolated island, the government must take the responsibility of 400,000 Rohingya. In that case, we have to see whether the government or the international agencies can afford it,” Hossain told BenarNews.
“This will not be an effective measure because the place is risky,” he added, noting that the island is vulnerable to floods and cyclones.
He also warned that Bangladesh could face other problems after the government has cleared the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar of their Rohingya residents.
“Besides, new Rohingya will settle on the land that would be vacated after the relocation. This will continue as a cycle,” Hossain said.
Reported by Jesmin Papri from Cox's Dhaka, Bangladesh, for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.