Envoys from several countries contributing to the Rohingya response will for the first time visit a remote island this weekend where Bangladesh has moved thousands of refugees, they said Thursday, amid widespread international concern about its safety and on-site facilities.
Their government-hosted visit scheduled for Saturday comes after trips last month to Bhashan Char Island by a United Nations delegation, and by the Red Cross, which said more global relief was needed for the refugees’ health and food security there and elsewhere.
“During this first visit to Bhashan Char by some of the heads of mission whose countries are contributing to the Rohingya response, participants will have an opportunity to see some of the facilities and services on the island and may have a chance to meet with relocated Rohingya refugees, authorities, and others living and working there,” the ambassadors of at least seven Western countries said in a joint statement.
The ambassadors and in-country representatives of Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America said they were among foreign envoys invited by Bangladesh’s government to visit the low-lying Bay of Bengal island.
“Envoys look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Government of Bangladesh on its Bhashan Char project, as well as with the U.N. and other relevant partners following the visit. Further conversations are needed, especially between the Government of Bangladesh and U.N. to discuss the policy and technical issues in detail.”
The U.N. had been requesting a visit to evaluate the livability of the flood-prone island for more than two years, and humanitarian groups had criticized Bangladesh for moving refugees there without a thorough assessment of the site by international experts.
While the U.N.’s visit on March 17 to 20 did not include a technical assessment of the island, experts from the world body did look at the facilities and talk to the relocated refugees.
Most of the 1 million Rohingya who fled from neighboring Myanmar live in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern district that borders Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The refugees include more than 740,000 who escaped a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine in 2017.
Bangladesh began relocating the Rohingya from crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar on the mainland to Bhashan Char last December. The government has continued to assert that no one is being be forced to move to the island.
Once they visit Bhashan Char, international representatives will be convinced that it is a safe island, said Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
“They are being taken to a better place than the camps in Cox’s Bazar. International representatives and foreign ambassadors will see that,” Ahmed told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
‘More international relief needed’
Meanwhile on Thursday, Bangladesh moved an additional 2,125 Rohingya to Bhashan Char from Cox’s Bazar, with another batch of 2,185 expected Friday, Commodore Rashed Sattar, director of the Bhashan Char project, confirmed to BenarNews.
Bangladesh has relocated close to 16,000 refugees from the mainland camps, Sattar said.
Last week, a devastating fire at a camp in Cox’s Bazar left at least 11 people dead and 45,000 homeless.
Earlier this week, some Rohingya told BenarNews they had decided to move to Bhashan Char after the fire because compatriots told them that living conditions were better on the island.
Bangladesh had said that transferring thousands of refugees to the offshore location would relieve pressure on the densely crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has, time and again, raised the issue of the refugees and the strain that sheltering them has taken on Bangladesh.
The government had said it spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment and other infrastructure on the island, where the facilities were better than at the camps.
After its independent visit to the island March 13 to 15, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) urged Bangladesh, humanitarian agencies, and international donors to do everything possible to keep the refugees safe wherever they lived.
The IFRC team said it found that the Bangladesh government had “made progress on Bhashan Char in terms of the development of infrastructure.”
“However, it also found urgent investment is needed to ensure that women and children are adequately protected, and that food security, health care, and schooling is assured both in the short and longer-term,” the IFRC said in a statement.
The government had put in place evacuation centers on the island to keep the Rohingya safe during natural disasters and cyclones, but the facilities need to be strengthened, especially because of the upcoming cyclone season and the periodic storms.
“With the cyclone season fast approaching, people on Bhashan Char could become stranded with a shortage of food when major storms strike, leaving the sea passage impassable, in turn denying the delivery of relief, medicines, and other vital supplies,” said Sanjeev Kafley, the ICRC delegation head in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent also said it was working with the authorities to deliver food packages, hygiene items, and sanitation and health services to the thousands of people on the island for the coming months.
Dhaka University’s Ahmed said the infrastructure on Bhashan Char is sound because the Bangladeshi navy built it.
“Shelters have been made in Bhashan Char keeping in mind the possibilities of disaster. There are also arrangements to keep food and other items in case of emergency,” he said.
“Moreover, natural disasters like cyclones can even damage modern cities. Different parts of America are also often badly affected.”
Source: Radio Free Asia