UN expert visits Bangladesh Rohingya ‘relocation’ island

Dhaka: A UN Special Rapporteur on human rights visited on Thursday an island off Bangladesh where Dhaka aims to move Rohingya refugees despite worries it will be vulnerable to extreme weather.

Some 750,000 Muslim Rohingyas flooded into Bangladesh in late 2017 after an offensive by Myanmar’s military that the United Nations has said could have amounted to genocide, joining 250,000 already there.

Bangladesh is spending $280 million transforming Bhashan Char, a muddy silt islet that only emerged from the sea two decades ago, into a camp for some of the refugees.

But the island, in a coastal region where weather has killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades, is one hour by boat from the nearest land over a stretch of sea prone to violent storms.

Some of the Rohingya themselves, living in overcrowded and squalid camps in southeastern Bangladesh border district of Cox’s Bazar, have expressed unease about moving, while the UN has insisted that any relocation must be voluntary.

Yanghee Lee, the UN rapporteur, visited the island by helicopter accompanied by Bangladeshi foreign ministry officials and was due to inspect the shelters and facilities being built there.

Lee, on a visit also taking in Myanmar’s other neighbour Thailand, issued no statement but she was due to give a news conference in Dhaka on Friday, the UN said.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen this week said Dhaka was not hiding anything in the island and they would take all interested diplomats once construction work is completed.

“We’re very open. We’re not in any hide-and-seek. Let’s finish the work first,” he said.

Plans for the island camp were first floated in 2015 and Bangladesh previously wanted to start moving refugees from to the island last June before the monsoon season began.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was then slated to open the new settlement, built to house 100,000 refugees but behind schedule, last October, but the inauguration was postponed.

A senior disaster management official told AFP in September that nearly three-quarters of the project was complete, with the navy fast-tracking construction of shelters and evacuation centres.

Local authorities have been seeking to reassure refugees that they will be safe on the island, which is off limits to the public and to the media.

Local officials have pointed to a newly-constructed three-metre (nine-feet) embankment around the island they say will keep out tidal surges in the event of a cyclone.