DHAKA: A UN team has made its first visit to a remote Bangladeshi-built island, where it has moved nearly 14,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees since last December despite criticism from rights groups.
The three-day visit to Bhasan Char, dubbed Rohingya Island, began on March 17 with UN experts traveling by boat from Chottogram.
“The UN team consisted of 18 experts from different UN agencies engaged in the response to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The visit was facilitated and accompanied by Bangladesh government officials,” Louise Donovan, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News.
Located in the Bay of Bengal, 60 km from the mainland, Bhasan Char was built by Bangladesh in 2006 from silt from the Himalayas, at a cost of over $360 million, to relieve overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazaar.
Each Bhasan Char house has 2m x 2.5m concrete rooms, with small windows and toilets, for 11 people.
However, UNHCR has expressed concern about Bhasan Char’s vulnerability to severe weather and flooding, leading to a UN proposal in December 2019 for a “technical assessment” of the island.
Wednesday’s visit marked a breakthrough in the proposal. This follows various attempts by the UN refugee agency to visit the facility, pending government clearance to carry out the assessment, amid concerns over the safety of the resettlement.
Similar concerns have been raised by several international rights organizations who have urged Bangladesh not to relocate Rohingya to the island, believing it to be in a cyclone-prone area.
“During the visit, the UN team assessed the needs of Rohingya refugees living in Bhasan Char, including through meetings with Rohingya men, women, boys and girls. The UN team also met with local authorities and security agencies working on the island, as well as some of the NGOs and traders operating there,” Donovan said.
Dhaka said it has set up 120 cyclone shelters – built 4 feet above the ground – which could be used as hospitals, schools and community centers throughout the year.
“The UN also visited the infrastructure and facilities of Bhasan Char. This included housing, healthcare facilities, multi-purpose structures, police and fire stations, transportation infrastructure, electrical and telecommunications systems, and the flood levee,” Donovan said.
The UN has not yet shared the findings of its trip, but thanked the government of Bangladesh for “facilitating the visit”, adding that it hoped to “continue the dialogue”.
An official from the Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) confirmed the visit, adding that the UN team had assessed the island from “all possible dimensions”.
“They spoke to the Rohingyas, visited the supply chain and held meetings with different representatives of NGOs who are currently providing humanitarian aid in the island,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he does not know. was not authorized to speak to the media.
Dr Mohamad Arfin Rahman, a health sector manager with the Bangladeshi NGO Gonoshasthaya Kendra, said UN experts had met with them twice to get “a full picture” of the humanitarian work being done in the country. island.
“The UN team wanted to know about our activities and our working process. They try to get a complete picture of humanitarian operations in all aspects,” Rahman told Arab News.
There are 34 non-profit groups currently working on the island to provide humanitarian support to refugees.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen urged the UN to start operations on Bhasan Char as it would be “a huge task to manage 100,000 refugees on the island”.
Saiful Islam Chowdhury, Managing Director of Pulse Bangladesh, an NGO on Bhasan Char, agreed: “I hope the UN will start operations on Bhasan Char soon. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to continue humanitarian aid for a long time.
The international aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) continued to raise concerns about health facilities on the island.
“We understand that local NGOs only provide very basic primary health care. To our knowledge, secondary and specialized health services are not available. We don’t know how patients in need of emergency medical care are transferred to hospital from the island, given that it’s a three-hour boat ride from the mainland,” said Bernard Wiseman, MSF’s head of mission. in Bangladesh, at Arab News.
Bernard said that while MSF had no immediate plans to start operations on Bhasan Char, “we are in contact with the authorities to discuss potential access to the island.”
“We must ensure that any possible visit or assessment on our part meets acceptable conditions according to our principles (independence, medical needs first, etc.). We are also trying to understand the living conditions and the availability of health services in Bhasan Char,” he said.
The Rohingya are members of a minority ethnic and religious group, many of whom fled persecution in Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017.
Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist, regards the Rohingya as “Bengalis” of Bangladesh, even though their families have lived in the country for generations.
Almost all have been denied citizenship for decades, and they have also been denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.