April 17, 2018 / 1:09 PM / in 8 days

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

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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.

FILE PHOTO: The Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp is seen in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, April 3, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jared Ferrie

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Myanmar are living in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar district where they are threatened by flooding, disease and landslides with the monsoon season expected 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 an April 4 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 an April 10 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 Aug. 25, sparking a military crackdown. Myanmar has repeatedly rejected evidence that its soldiers targeted civilians.

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

However, in their April 4 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 km (8 miles) of embankments to protect the island from flooding and being washed away.

A summary of the April 4 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, 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”.

In emailed comments, UNHCR spokesman Firas Al-Khateeb said that “there have also been no official consultations with refugees regarding their views”.

“UNHCR is prepared to engage further with the government regarding the island,” he added.

The slides - which were presented to humanitarian agencies and diplomats - showed the government is also building office facilities for aid organizations, 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 U.N. migration agency IOM.

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

Speaking in London on Tuesday, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina confirmed the plan to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char and dismissed fears that it would put them at the mercy of floods.

“We have prepared a better place for them to live, with houses and shelters where they can earn a living,” she said.

Reporting by Jared Ferrie and Zoe Tabary, Editing by Robert Carmichael and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, resilience and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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