Bangladesh has agreed to take United Nations officials to a Bay of Bengal island housing thousands of Rohingya refugees, and the visit may take place this week, a foreign ministry official said Monday, more than two years after the world body asked to assess the suitability of the controversial site.
U.N. officials, meanwhile, told BenarNews they had not been given a date nor told if they could conduct assessments during the trip to Bhashan Char, the island housing more than 14,000 Rohingya who were moved from refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.
The government had been in talks with U.N. officials about the refugees’ relocation, said Md. Delwar Hossain, director general at the Myanmar desk of Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry.
“They are going to visit [Bhashan Char], as we were able to reach a consensus with them. They are supposed to go either on Tuesday or Wednesday,” Hossain told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“We had been in a discussion with the U.N. over relocation of Rohingya and the methods of providing them with humanitarian assistance there.”
Mostafa Mohammad Sajjad Hossain, a spokesman for the Dhaka office of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, confirmed that the Bangladesh government had agreed to facilitate a visit of the agency’s officials to the island.
“The government assured us about it last week, but we don’t know who will be on the delegation, when they will go and how long they will have the opportunity to stay there,” Sajjad told BenarNews.
“The U.N. has agreed to send the first mission to Bhashan Char as soon as possible and discussions are under way with the government on the details of this visit.”
Neither the government nor U.N. officials BenarNews spoke to could confirm whether the world body would conduct a technical assessment of the conditions on the island during the visit.
International humanitarian and rights organizations had said no one should be relocated from Cox’s Bazar until United Nations experts certify that the remote island is habitable, and a mechanism is in place to ensure that refugees are accorded basic human rights.
Still, the government moved the first batch of 1,642 refugees to the controversial low-lying island on Dec. 4.
The foreign ministry’s Hossain said U.N. officials would have to decide next steps following their visit.
“They will look at the overall situation of Rohingya refugees there and decide what to do. It is an obligation for the U.N. to go there to help the refugees, according to its mandate. We have a consensus on this point,” Hossain said.
“Basically their working-level officers will go to Bhashan Char. If they go there, they may get an understanding of the situation, then they can decide how to proceed.”
The Bhashan Char visit would be the first for U.N. officials since Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar at the time, visited the island in January 2019, when the government had begun constructing housing for the refugees.
Lee had advised Dhaka to allow full technical, humanitarian, and security assessments before sending Rohingya there.
More than 14,000 Rohingya have now been moved to Bhashan Char, and more would be relocated if they want to move voluntarily, said Mohammad Samsuddoza Nayan, an additional Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner.
“At least 22 local NGOs are helping the government in the relocation work and providing comprehensive humanitarian assistance, including food, to the Rohingya,” he told BenarNews.
Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asian group, had said last October that Bangladesh had coerced the Rohingya into moving to Bhashan Char, an allegation that the government had forcefully denied several times.
Late last month, a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation visited Bhashan Char and said they were satisfied with the infrastructure there, the Bangladesh foreign ministry had said. That visit was the first by any international official since Lee’s visit more than two years ago.
Bangladesh officials have built housing on the island for about 100,000 Rohingya in a bid to relieve pressure on crowded mainland camps in and around Cox’s Bazar. The camps house about 1 million refugees who fled neighboring Myanmar, including about 740,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state in August 2017.
Nurul Islam, a refugee who relocated to Bhashan Char from the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, said preparations have started on the island for the U.N. visitors.
“We will tell them what the situation is like and will request that they be involved in various activities,” he told BenarNews over the phone.
“We have and are getting all kinds of facilities on Bhashan Char, except medical care for major diseases. I will request that they introduce critical healthcare facilities on the island.”
Mostafa Kamal, a Rohingya leader from a refugee camp in Teknaf, also welcomed the planned trip by U.N. officials.
“The U.N.’s visit to Bhashan Char is good news. They will be able to make the right decision about the future of the Rohingya after observing the situation there,” he told BenarNews.
“The views of the U.N. will help those who are undecided about whether to go to Bhashan Char make a decision.”
Delwar Hossain, a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, said it was a good move on the part of the government to agree to a U.N. delegation visit to Bhashan Char.
“This is definitely a positive change. The inclusion of the U.N. is very important,” he told BenarNews.
“Bangladesh has had very good relations with the U.N. since the time of the refugee crisis during the war of liberation,” he said referring to Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.
The U.N. and Bangladesh have the same objective for Rohingya refugees, because “both sides are working for humanity,” he said.
The academic expects U.N. officials to make a “pragmatic” decision and continue to cooperate with Bangladesh on the Rohingya refugee situation.
“At the same time, the relationship between Bangladesh and the international community on the Rohingya issue will be further strengthened,” he said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online service.