Bangladesh on Saturday took a group of Rohingya refugees to inspect a tiny islet near its coast, where it hopes to relocate the persecuted community despite widespread criticism of the plan.
A total of 40 Rohingya refugees were taken to Bhashan Char, an islet in the Bay of Bengal around 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Bangladesh’s southwestern coast.
Accompanied by Bangladesh army and navy personnel, the Rohingya community members will remain on the islet for three days.
“They will have the chance to thoroughly inspect the island and the facilities constructed by the Bangladesh government, which include buildings that can house up to 100,000 people,” said Mohammad Shamsu Douza, a top official working on refugee affairs in Bangladesh.
“The group can evaluate the living conditions and decide whether the land is suitable for relocation.”
There are around 1.2 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who sought shelter in the country after fleeing state persecution and genocide in neighboring Myanmar.
They have been living in one of the world’s largest refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.
Dhaka has been pressing for the community to return to Myanmar but the Rohingya oppose repatriation due to persisting threats to their lives.
Bangladesh came up with a plan to relocate the community to the Bhashan Char islet, but the move has been widely criticized by rights groups and refugee agencies.
Some have said the new location will be nothing but “an open-air prison” for the Rohingya community.
The group taken to the islet on Saturday did not include any representatives from international organizations, a point that Douza refused to comment on.
However, he claimed that Bangladesh remains keen to facilitate a visit of UN agencies to the island.
A UN official told Anadolu Agency that any relocation must be voluntary and can only commence after a thorough evaluation by competent authorities.
“The UN’s longstanding position remains that comprehensive technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char are essential before any relocations to the island take place, and that any relocations should be voluntary,” said Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) communications officer in Dhaka.
“Go-and-see visits are one important part of ensuring refugees can make an informed choice about voluntary relocation to the island. The safety and protection of refugees are the most important considerations, as is the need for any relocation to be voluntary.”
He said the agency remains “prepared to proceed with this onsite assessment work.”
“However, the UNHCR has neither been involved in this visit nor [was it] requested to support it,” Hossain said.
World’s most persecuted people
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 their number in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.
Since Aug. 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).
More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten, said the OIDA report, titled Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience.
As many as 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police, and over 115,000 Rohingya homes were burned down, while 113,000 others were vandalized, it added.