January 31, 2017
Bangladesh’s government is moving forward
with a plan to relocate Rohingya refugees staying in camps near the country’s
largest tourist resort towns to a remote island that is underwater for much of
A cabinet order on Thursday directed
officials to have the refugees transferred to Thengar Char, an island in the
Bay of Bengal that is lashed by high tides year round and submerged during the
monsoon season. The suggestion that they be moved to the largely uninhabitable
marshland several hours by boat from the mainland drew criticism from around
The relocation plan was last proposed in
2015, but the government quietly suspended it after criticism from
international aid groups and rights activists. Its reinstatement follows the
arrival of about 65,000 Rohingya from Myanmar in October and November, after a
crackdown by Myanmar’s army and attacks on security forces by Islamic
The United Nations has called the Rohingya;
a Muslim ethnic group denied citizenship in Myanmar, the world’s most
persecuted minority. John McKissick, head of the Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar, near the
Burmese border, said in November that Myanmar’s government was trying to
achieve an “ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority.”
Since 1992, about 32,000 registered
Rohingya have been living in two United Nations camps near Cox’s Bazar, but
estimates of unregistered refugees range from 200,000 to 500,000. Many of them
live in two sprawling makeshift shelters close to the official camps, while
others are scattered across southeast Bangladesh.
Talk of forced relocation worries refugees
who have lived in the Cox’s Bazar area for more than two decades.
“We have been here for a long time,” one of
them, Shafiul Mostafa, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday from one of the
camps. “We have gotten to know our neighbours, and we can speak the local
dialect, which is similar to our language. If we are taken to a new place, it
will be very difficult for us. We won’t be able to communicate with anyone.”
The United Nations refugee agency, which
runs the camps, criticized the relocation proposal in 2015, calling it “complex
and controversial” and saying that departures would have to take place with the
Now, the return of the plan has taken aid
groups by surprise.
“U.N.H.C.R. is concerned about this news
and seeking details from the authorities,” Shinji Kubo, a representative of the
United Nations refugee agency in Bangladesh, said by email. “Any move must be
carried out through a consultative and voluntary process, and the feasibility
of the proposed site must be assessed.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International say a recent crackdown in Myanmar indiscriminately targeted the
Rohingya, citing satellite imagery showing 1,500 Rohingya homes burned down and
widespread reports of mass killings and rapes.
The cabinet in Bangladesh has directed
officials to take steps to stop further “illegal entry of Myanmar nationals”
and to prevent existing refugees from “mixing in with local populations.” It
also ordered officials to keep all illegal immigrants from Myanmar in
designated areas, and to arrest them or push them back into those areas if they
tried to leave.
The order, which was posted on the
cabinet’s website, said the arrival of Rohingya in recent months had raised
tensions, created “physical risks” for local people, and caused social and
economic problems in Cox’s Bazar.
Critics of the relocation say the order has
more to do with a desire to develop Cox’s Bazar, home to what the government
promotes as the longest beach in the world, into a booming tourism destination
to rival others in Asia.
“Right now, people here are only building
hotels and guesthouses,” said Hayat Khan, an executive at the Ocean Paradise
Hotel in Cox’s Bazar.
“You go to the beach for half an hour, and
then there’s nothing more to do. You need cable cars, and theme parks like the
Window of the World in Shenzhen,” he added, referring to a city in southern
China. “For that, you will need a lot of investment, and a lot of land.”
Rohingya refugees and their leaders say
that they were not consulted about the plan.
“If the government wants something, we will
have to obey them,” said Mr. Mostafa, the refugee. “At the end of the day, what
we want or don’t want is not going to matter to anyone.”