A team of 40 Rohingyas today went to Bhashan Char island in Hatiya of Noakhali where the government has built an accommodation facility for one lakh Rohingyas.
"The Rohingya majhis [leaders] from Cox's Bazar camps went to Bhashan Char under the supervision of Bangladesh Army and Navy. They will stay there for three days before returning to Cox's Bazar on September 8," Refugee Rehabilitation and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mahbub Alam Talukder told The Daily Star today.
"If everything is right, we will start relocating one lakh Rohingyas after the monsoon," he said.
Additional RRRC Mohammad Shamsuddoza Noyon said the 40 Rohingyas from 34 camps were mobilsed at a transit camp at Kutupalong of Ukhiya last night. Early today, they were taken to Chattogram and then to Bhashan Char in a Bangladesh Navy ship, reports our Cox's Bazar Correspondent.
"This is part of a motivational programme," he said.
The government has built 120 cluster villages on the 40 sqkm island under a Tk 2,312 crore housing project for accommodating one lakh of the nearly 1 million Rohingyas sheltered in cramped camps in Cox's Bazar.
According to government officials, the houses have been built four feet above the ground with concrete blocks. The entire housing site is protected by a 13 km long flood embankment. There are also 120 cyclone shelters, which are planned to be used as schools, medical centres and community centres.
The officials also said there are large swathes of land that could be used for livestock and fish farming if the Rohingyas were relocated there. The refugees in the Cox's Bazar camps have very little work to do now.
UN and aid agencies have been insisting that the island was isolated, flood-prone and would be hazardous for the Rohingyas because of cyclones and tidal surges.
Amid such a situation, the government in February this year had considered shelving the idea of relocating the Rohingyas because the international organisations have not agreed to it.
Without cooperation from those organisations, the government would face difficulties in arranging food, healthcare and other necessary items for one lakh people on Bhashan Char, Md Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief, had told The Daily Star after a visit to the island on February 13.
After the visit, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen had said if the Rohingyas were shifted to Bhashan Char, they might not agree to leave the place in future. He also had said the government wanted the Rohingyas to go back to Rakhine and repatriation was high priority.
Asked about the future of the housing project if the government changes the relocation plan, he had said they were yet to decide on it, but he thought homeless people from other parts of the country could be accommodated on the island that is safe for human habitation.
The idea of shelving the relocation plan seemed to have reversed now. Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen at a webinar on August 24 said the government has arranged adequate health, sanitary facility and vaccination, with referral system for complicated health conditions in Bhashan Char.
Besides, it created temporary work and livelihood options (salt-tolerant paddy, horticulture, fisheries, poultry and animal husbandry) and arranged primary -- non-formal and formal -- education which can be extended to secondary education. Vocational education and skill development facility may be established in due course.
He said the mighty cyclone Amphan has attested to the durability of the island and quality of the structures built.
He also highlighted the congestion, demographic imbalance, risks of mudslides and criminal activities in Cox's Bazar camps.
"Detractors should now stop their propaganda on Bhashan Char and examine how to relieve pressure off the highly congested Cox's Bazar area where locals are outnumbered at a ratio of 2:1," he said.
Masud Bin Momen also said the 306 Rohingyas rescued in the Bay of Bengal and sheltered in the island were doing well and hinted of the "go-and-see visit" for relatives of sheltered Rohingyas and other representatives to Bhashan Char.
"If they find the place better than the cramped camps in Cox's Bazar, we expect to commence initial transfer of Rohingyas there after the Monsoon season," he said.
UN Teams are expected to visit Bhashan Char and prepare UN system's assistance response, he said.
Meanwhile, UNHCR said it is aware of reports of a go-and-see visit, but has neither been involved in this visit nor requested to support it.
"Go-and-see visits are one important part of ensuring refugees can make an informed choice about voluntary relocation to the island. The safety and protection of refugees are the most important considerations, as is the need for any relocation to be voluntary," said Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, assistant communication officer at the UNHCR in Dhaka today.
The UN continues to emphasise the need to be able to undertake thorough protection and technical assessments before any relocations to Bhasan Char, to ensure that the island is a safe and sustainable place for refugees to live.
The UN informed the government that it would be prepared to undertake a protection visit to Bhashan Char and terms of reference have been shared.
"We are continuing to await feedback. Several months have passed since the refugees were transferred to Bhashan Char, and it is now urgent for the UN to have access to them," the UNHCR officer said in a statement.
A comprehensive technical and protection assessment to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhashan Char are essential before any relocation to the island, the statement said.
"Any relocation should be voluntary. The UN has long been prepared to proceed with this onsite assessment work," the UNHCR said.