Yangon: The United Nations (UN) is making plans to help Bangladesh relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island off its coast, documents seen by Reuters show, a move opposed by many refugees and that some human rights experts fear could spark a new crisis.
Bangladesh said transporting refugees to Bhasan Char – a Bay of Bengal island hours by boat from the mainland – will ease chronic overcrowding in its camps at Cox’s Bazar, which are home to more than 1 million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.
Humanitarian and human rights groups have criticised the relocation proposal, saying the island is flood-prone, vulnerable to frequent cyclones and could be completely submerged during a high tide.
A document drawn up by the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN’s food aid arm, shows the agency has supplied the Bangladesh government with detailed plans – including a timeline and budget – of how it could provide for thousands of Rohingya transported to the island within weeks. It stresses that any relocation should be voluntary and done “in accordance with humanitarian principles and code of conduct.”
The document, labelled as a ‘Concept of Operations’ and dated March 12, outlines how the organisation and its partners “may facilitate the identification, staging, forward movement, reception, and sustainment of refugees” on Bhasan Char, estimating an initial appeal for donor funding of between $8.6 and $19 million.
More detailed operational planning would be needed it said, noting the ‘Concept of Operations’ had been “developed quickly and without the benefit of any recent on-site assessment”.
Gemma Snowdon, communications officer for WFP in Cox’s Bazar, said the organisation was part of “ongoing discussions” with the government over the future of the refugee response.
“The viability of safely relocating people to Bhasan Char needs to be thoroughly assessed and WFP is investigating the potential operational needs, financial costs and challenges in several areas that we traditionally support in emergencies: food security, emergency telecommunications and logistics,” she said.
The numbers of refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps have grown dramatically since August 2017, when a Myanmar military-led crackdown that UN investigators have said was conducted with “genocidal intent” prompted some 7,30,000 Rohingya to flee.