Bangladesh said Wednesday it would start relocating tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from overcrowded camps to a remote island vulnerable to extreme weather, despite the plan attracting considerable controversy. Shelters and flood walls have been constructed on Bhashan Char, a muddy silt islet that only rose from the Bay of Bengal in 2006, in the hope of shifting 100,000 Rohingya refugees there.
Bangladesh has been talking about the island for years and the plan to relocate some of the nearly one million Rohingya refugees living along its border with Myanmar has stalled many times. The proposal to uproot the refugees remains unpopular among the Rohingya community and critics have raised concerns about the island's ability to withstand violent storms during the monsoon.
But Mozammel Huq, the head of Bangladesh's cabinet committee on law and order and a senior government minister, said the relocation would proceed as planned. "We plan to start the process next month, as construction at Bhashan Char is now complete," he told AFP.
Kamal Hossain, the government administrator of Cox's Bazar district where the vast Rohingya camps are located, told AFP they were "preparing a list of refugees who would voluntarily go to the island". The island is one hour by boat from the nearest land and experts said it was too risky to house the refugees on the island as it is prone to flooding during the storm surge.
Hundreds of thousands have died in Bangladesh from cyclones in the last 50 years, mostly in coastal areas. Local officials have pointed to a newly-constructed three-metre (nine-feet) high embankment around the island they say will keep out tidal surges in the event of a cyclone.
But a top UN rights expert in January warned moving the refugees there could spark a "new crisis" for the persecuted Muslim minority. Huq said the UN "should concentrate on the welfare of the Rohingya instead".
"It is up to Bangladesh to decide where we will keep the refugees," he said. Aid groups have warned the refugees crammed into the world's largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar are at risk of landslides, disease and floods.
The Rohingya fled Myanmar by droves in 2017 into Bangladesh, escaping a military-led crackdown the UN has said could amount to genocide. An official from the International Criminal Court who visited the Rohingya camps this week said those responsible for their persecution would be held to account, despite Myanmar not being a signatory to the Hague-based court.
US ambassador Earl Miller met with Bangladesh government officials on Tuesday in Cox's Bazar to "learn more" about the island relocation. "He welcomed assurances that any movements to the island will be fully voluntary, based on informed consent, and those who choose to go will have free movement off the island to maintain connections with the rest of the Rohingya community in Cox's Bazar," a statement from the US embassy said.
(With inputs from agencies.)