The United Nations is going to send a delegation to visit Bhasan Char, where the government has developed a housing facility for 100,000 Rohingyas but faced reservations from aid agencies about the move.
The development comes following an impasse of more than a year between the government and the UN regarding the global body's technical assessment of the facility.
The United Nations revealed the decision after a meeting between heads of some UN missions in Dhaka and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen on Tuesday, a day after newly-appointed UNHCR Representative Johannes van der Klaauw presented his credentials to Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen at the foreign ministry.
"The UN has agreed to undertake its first mission to Bhasan Char at the earliest possible date," Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, communications officer at the UN Refugee Agency in Dhaka, told The Daily Star yesterday.
"The UN is in discussions with the government about finalising all details of the visit," he said.
The government has already relocated some 13,000 Rohingyas to Bhasan Char, an island under Noakhali, from Cox's Bazar in phases since December last year. It is in the process of shifting more in the coming days.
Bangladesh Navy implemented the Tk 3,100 crore housing project after some 750,000 Rohingyas had fled a military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State in 2017 and took shelter in the camps in Teknaf and Ukhia.
Apart from the risk of landslides in the hilly terrain, the government cited issues such as drug peddling, human trafficking, gender-based violence, conflicts between factions of the refugee communities in Cox's Bazar, and environmental degradation as major reasons for the relocation move.
The UN raised concerns over risks of tidal surge and cyclone at the remote island, but the government said with 120 brick-built cluster villages and 120 cyclone shelters, flood protection embankments, facilities for education, farming and fishing, hospitals and playgrounds, the Char is a much better living place than the Cox's Bazar camps.
The UN said it wanted to send one of its technical teams to the island to assess the housing facilities. Asked by the government, it even submitted the terms of reference for the visit in December 2019.
The move got stalled after that.
Project officials said separate buildings for the UN and other international aid agencies have also been constructed in Bhasan Char.
After relocation of the first batch of Rohingyas in December last year, some 22 NGOs volunteered to go there and started providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees.
Later, 20 more joined them, but all of them are using their own fund. There are concerns over how funds needed for 100,000 Rohingyas would be managed after their relocation.
The government has been urging the UN to begin its operations in Bhasan Char, but the UN as well as donor countries had been seeking an independent technical assessment of the facility.
The government, however, maintained no such technical assessment was necessary as Bhasan Char has been equipped with a well-built facility developed by maintaining international standards and addressing all risks involved.
Apart from having spent a huge amount of money for the housing project, Bangladesh faces enormous economic, political, environmental and even security challenges because of the Rohingyas, though the country initially sheltered them solely on humanitarian grounds.
"The international community must consider the burden on Bangladesh and act accordingly," a foreign ministry official said.
During his visit to the US late last month, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen requested the UN secretary-general to provide humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas in Bhasan Char.
Following a meeting with UNHCR Representative Johannes van der Klaauw on March 8, Momen told this correspondent that he invited the UN to visit the island during the meeting.
At an event marking the International Women's Day at the Foreign Service Academy, the minister said the international community should sincerely work to create conducive conditions in Myanmar and repatriation of the Rohingyas, instead of paying "lip service" to anyone or expressing concern whether the Rohingyas live in Bhasan Char or in Cox's Bazar. UN Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo and some other diplomats were also present at the event.
The official said it was great that the UN has agreed to visit the island. "It is the UN Refugee Agency's mandate to take care of the Rohingyas wherever they are," he said, adding that the government does not think at this moment that any technical team needs to conduct any assessment of the Bhasan Char facility.
Journalists, researchers and a delegation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), led by its Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Dr Yousef Aldobeay, has recently visited the island. The delegation appreciated the facilities there, said the official.
The UN did not say if it was anymore considering technical assessment of Bashan Char. A UN official, however, said the UN decision on it would come only after the visit.
Contacted, Brac Senior Director KAM Morshed said they began operations in Bhasan Char in February following an assessment.
"Initially, we provided some emergency support that included gas cylinders to the relocated Rohingyas. We are finding ways of providing education to Rohingyas and ensuring their livelihood," he told The Daily Star yesterday.
The NGOs are now providing essential services, including food and medical supplies, with their own fund. This is possible now as the number of the Rohingyas there is only some 13,000. However, assistance from the UN and international aid agencies will be required once one lakh Rohingyas are relocated there.
It is a good move that the UN has agreed to undertake a visit to the project. If there is any gap in communication, it should be addressed at the soonest, added Morshed.