Bangladeshi authorities urged the international community on Sunday (5) to back a controversial plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to a remote island despite warnings it is uninhabitable.
Foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali called on representatives from 60 diplomatic missions and several United Nations agencies to take “meaningful measures” to relocate the refugees.
The scheme would see the Rohingya resettled on Thengar Char island in the Bay of Bengal, where Ali said the displaced would have “better access to humanitarian assistance”.
Some 232,000 Rohingya Muslims—both registered and unregistered—were already living in Bangladesh before more than 65,000 others began arriving in October, fleeing violence in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine.
Most of those who fled to Bangladesh live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district, which borders Rakhine state and is home to the country’s biggest tourist resort.
Last week, Bangladesh established a committee comprised of state officials in coastal districts to oversee the plan, and ordered authorities to help identify and relocate undocumented Myanmar nationals to the island.
One local official criticised the idea, saying the 6,000-acre (2,430-hectare) island was “only accessible during winter and a haven for pirates”.
Bangladesh first mooted the idea of relocating the refugees in 2015 despite allegations that the island was still not ready for human habitation.
The idea sparked an outcry from Rohingya community leaders, while a UN agency said a forced relocation would be “very complex and controversial”.
During Sunday’s meeting, Ali told officials the Rohingya would only be relocated to the island after the government finished building the necessary infrastructure, including schools and roads.
“[The minister] requested the… UN and other international partners to render their support in the implementation of this relocation plan by providing assistance in developing the island and in transporting the Myanmar nationals,” read a foreign ministry statement, adding that the move was a “temporary arrangement”.
“Bangladesh would like the international community to take meaningful measures for repatriation of this population to their homes back in Myanmar,” the statement said.
Myanmar has long faced international criticism for its treatment of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and live in conditions rights groups have compared to apartheid.
Since October the Myanmar army has carried out a military crackdown in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said has likely killed hundreds.