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Aid agencies fear for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh’s island relocation plan

Excavators are seen on the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, on 14 February 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Bangladesh has failed to persuade aid agencies to sign up to its plan to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island in June, internal documents show, amid fears they could be trapped there at the mercy of cyclones, floods and human traffickers.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Burma are living in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar district where they are threatened by flooding, disease and landslides with the monsoon season scheduled to start in the coming weeks.

The government of Bangladesh has for months been developing Bhasan Char Island as an alternative location. However, it has not allowed aid agencies to view conditions, and officials failed during a 4 April briefing to convince them it was safe.

The Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), which oversees the camps in Cox’s Bazar under the leadership of the humanitarian agencies’ Strategic Executive Group (SEG), expressed deep caution about the plan.

“Basic questions of the island’s habitability remain unanswered,” the ISCG said in a 10 April paper, which has not previously been made public.

“Given the incompleteness of information shared by the government, the SEG should avoid the appearance of premature endorsement of the island as a viable alternative,” it said.

About 700,000 refugees have crossed into Bangladesh since Rohingya insurgents attacked state security forces on 25 August, sparking a military crackdown. Burma has repeatedly rejected evidence that its soldiers targeted civilians.

Aid agencies are struggling to accommodate the refugees, and a March assessment by UNHCR said 203,000 people at risk of floods and landslides in the largest camp should be relocated.

However, in their 4 April briefing, Bangladesh officials said that “land is very scarce,” and “no suitable land is available nearby” the existing camps.

Bhasan Char, which means “Floating Island,” emerged over the past two decades from sediment built up at the mouth of the Meghna River. The government has budgeted $280 million to turn it into a permanent landmass and a temporary home for refugees.

Slides from the government presentation, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noted that 120 cyclone shelters would be built, along with 13 kilometres (8 miles) of embankments to protect the island from flooding and being washed away.

A summary of the 4 April briefing by Canada’s mission to Bangladesh said work was expected to be sufficiently completed by the end of May, and 100,000 refugees brought there in June.

In an internal report after the presentation, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said it remained concerned about whether “proper cyclone and flood preparedness measures” had been put in place, among other risks.

“The concentration of a vulnerable population in a restricted environment may lure trafficking networks and extremists to prey on refugees,” said UNHCR.

Its report also expressed concern that refugees would not be given a “free and informed choice” to relocate to the island, which might then constitute “arbitrary detention”.

The slides — which were presented to humanitarian agencies and diplomats — showed the government is also building office facilities for aid organisations, along with accommodation for refugees and security personnel.

Bangladesh has asked the United Nations to “support the relocation” to Bhasan Char, said Fiona MacGregor, a spokeswoman in Cox’s Bazar for the UN migration agency IOM.

“We are now in discussion over technical details, trying to better understand the conditions,” she said in an email.