Bangladesh Says Island Now Ready for 100,000 Rohingya

17 January 2020

A small island in Bangladesh is ready to house 100,000 Rohingya refugees, government officials announced Thursday.

No date has been set to begin moving people from crowded refugee camps along the country's border with Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The island, named Bhasan Char, is in the Bay of Bengal, about 60 kilometers off the coast from the mainland. It was often flooded during monsoon seasons. It resurfaced only 20 years ago and has never been lived on.

FILE - Rohingya Muslims wait to cross the border to Bangladesh, in a temporary camp outside Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, Nov. 12, 2017.
FILE - Rohingya Muslims wait to cross the border to Bangladesh, in a temporary camp outside Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, Nov. 12, 2017.

Mahbub Alam Talukder is the head of Bangladesh's refugee, relief and repatriation efforts. He told The Associated Press, "Bhasan Char is ready for habitation. Everything has been put in place."

Bhasan Char is equipped with flood protection equipment, housing, hospitals and Islamic religious centers, officials say.

The island is equipped to hold 100,000 people. That is a small percentage of the one million Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar, which has a large Buddhist population.

About 700,000 people came after August of 2017. That is when Myanmar's military launched a harsh campaign against the Rohingya. Military officials said it was in answer to an earlier attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Human rights groups and the United Nations called the campaign ethnic cleansing involving rapes and killings.

One reporter's visit to the island

Foreign media have not yet been permitted to visit the fully equipped Bhasan Char. But Bangladeshi reporter Saleh Noman was recently able to visit the island. He described what he saw.

"I saw a market with about 10 grocery shops and roadside tea stalls. Some were selling fish and vegetables," he said. "All is set there with a solar power system and water supply lines."

The Bangladesh navy has been taking steps to protect the island, which was underwater for months during monsoon seasons.

But many international aid agencies and UN officials have strongly opposed the plan since it was first proposed in 2015. They fear that a big storm could put the island -- and those living on it -- at great risk.

Mostofa Mohamamd Sazzad Hossain is a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh. He said Thursday that the agency is not ready to support plans to move the refugees. He added that the agency is waiting for a chance to visit the island.

Where to go

The current refugee camps are near the coastal town of Cox's Bazar. They are overcrowded and dirty. Disease and organized crime are problems there. Education is limited and refugees are not permitted to work.

Yet most Rohingya have expressed an unwillingness to return to Myanmar because of safety concerns. Government officials do not have an estimate of how many refugees would be willing to move to the island.

On Thursday, two Bangladeshi workers involved with development of the island described its infrastructure as "modern" and of good quality. They spoke to the AP on condition that their names not be used because they did not have permission to talk to the media.

"Bangladeshi villages have never seen such good work," one worker said. He added, "We constructed raised concrete buildings that could be used as cyclone shelters. Many trees have been planted."

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has told the U.N. and other international partners that her administration will speak with them before making a final decision on the relocation. She has also said that no refugees will be forced to move to the island.

In November, Bangladesh attempted to start sending refugees back to Myanmar, but no one was willing to go.

The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in Myanmar, leaving them stateless. They face many other forms of discrimination.

In 2018, a UN-supported investigation proposed charging Myanmar's top military commanders with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the violence against the Rohinya.

Myanmar is now facing the International Court of Justice in The Hague after the African nation of Gambia brought a case against the country.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

monsoon - n. a wind in the Indian Ocean and southern Asia that brings heavy rains in the summer

repatriation - n. the act of returning (someone) to his or her own country

habitation - n. the act of living in a place

shop - n. a building or room where goods and services are sold

stall - n. a small open counter or partially enclosed structure where things are displayed for sale

solar - adj. produced by or using the sun's light or heat

infrastructure - n. the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function well

construct - v. to build or make (something physical, such as a road, bridge, or building)

cyclone - n. an extremely large, powerful, and destructive storm with very high winds that turn around an area of low pressure