As the number of Rohingyas rise in Bangladesh, the South Asian country is planning to relocate them to a remote uninhabitable island. Observers say the move will send a wrong signal to the authorities in Myanmar.
More than 69,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh from Myanmar since a military crackdown on the minority Muslim group began in October last year. Human rights groups say security forces and Buddhist extremists have torched Rohingya homes, raped their women and killed hundreds of people since unidentified gunmen killed nine border guards in Myanmar last year.
A recent UN report accused Myanmar's security forces of carrying out horrific acts of brutality against the Muslim minority. The country's de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Sui Kyi, has vowed to investigate the allegations.
In total, there are more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Bangladesh; most of them are living in overcrowded makeshift camps in the southern coastal district of Cox's Bazar. Bangladeshi authorities have already turned away hundreds of Rohingyas claiming it is impossible to accommodate all of them in the country.
The government now wants to relocate them to a remote and almost uninhabitable island, Thengar Char.
Uninhabitable and prone to natural disasters
The relocation plan has been heavily criticized by human rights groups and the United Nations. CR Abrar, chief coordinator for the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU), a non-governmental organization working on the Rohingya issues, says the island is not inhabitable at the moment.
"The island is very far from the mainland. There won't be many opportunities available to the refugees to have a livelihood," Abrar told DW. "The island is prone to flooding and cyclones. It is a very remote area, so the pirates frequently raid it,'' he added.
Khandakar Rezaul Karim, a government official who recently visited Thengar Char, confirmed to DW that at the moment nobody lives on the island.
"The island can only be reached by boat. A large part of it remains submerged during the monsoon season. No construction work has ever been taken place on the island,'' Karim underlined.
Bangladesh's Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali acknowledged that a lot of work needs to be done to make the island livable. "The government plans to build necessary infrastructure, including shelter, schools, hospitals, mosques and roads, to make the island habitable,'' Ali said in a statement on Sunday.
Ali called on the international community to assist the Bangladeshi government in developing the island. ''The relocation will take place only after the development activities are completed,'' he emphasized.
A 'wrong signal'
Rohingya Muslims have remained a stateless ethnic minority for decades. The Myanmar government considers them illegal Bengali migrants. They are not allowed to apply for the country's citizenship. The authorities say it is Dhaka's responsibility to look after them.
Abrar points out that relocating Rohingyas to an island would send a wrong signal to the authorities in Myanmar. "They might think that Bangladesh has agreed to accept the Rohingyas permanently as they are shifting them to an island far from their borders. As a result, Myanmar won't feel obliged to take back the refugees."
Bangladesh's foreign minister told media that the relocation of the Rohingya people is temporary, and that the government will continue its effort to repatriate them to Myanmar.
But Abrar is not very hopeful that the Rohingyas in Bangladesh could be sent back any time soon. "Rohingyas have fled their land due to the fear of persecution, and this is not an imaginary fear. Myanmar must grant citizenship to Rohingyas and ensure their safety in Rakhine state so that they can live with dignity,'' he said.