DHAKA: Bangladesh will start relocating Rohingya Muslims to a flood-prone island off its coast next month as several thousand refugees have agreed to move, a government official said on Sunday.

Dhaka wants to move 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char a Bay of Bengal island hours by boat from the mainland to ease overcrowding in its camps at Cox’s Bazaar, home to more than one million Rohingya Muslims who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.

“We want to start relocation by early next month,” Mahbub Alam Talukder, the Relief and Repatriation Comm­ission chief based in Cox’s Bazaar, said, adding that “the refugees will be shifted in phases”.

“Our officials are compiling the lists of the refugees who are willing to move there,” he said, adding that as many as 7,000 refugees had by Saturday agreed to shift. Some human rights groups have expressed concern over that plan because the island is remote and prone to devastation from cyclones. Many refugees oppose the move, which some human rights experts fear could spark a new crisis.

Densely populated Bangladesh has been grappling with large refugee numbers, with local communities turning hostile towards Rohingya after a second failed bid to send thousands back to Myanmar in August.

The number of refugees in Cox’s Baz­aar has swelled since August 2017, when a Myanmar military-led crackdown that UN investigators have said was conducted with genocidal intent prompted some 730,000 Rohingya to flee.

A UN human rights investigator who visited in January said she feared a new crisis if Rohingya were taken to the island. There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable, said Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

Shah Kamal, secretary of Bangla­deshs Disaster Management Ministry, said the government was in talks with UN agencies to move the refugees to Bhasan Char, which it has been developing for the past three years.

There is no reason to be concerned about floods because we have built storm surge embankment, with all other facilities,” he said.

“No one will be moved there against their will.”

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2019