Alarm over Dhaka's bid to relocate Rohingya on 'disappearing' island

Thengar Char, the proposed site for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, is a new marshy island which disappears underwater at high tide. It emerged from the sea about eight years ago. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Thengar Char, the proposed site for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, is a new marshy island which disappears underwater at high tide. It emerged from the sea about eight years ago. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HATIYA (Bangladesh) - The remote Bangladeshi island of Thengar Char disappears completely underwater at high tide and has no roads or flood defences. But that has not stopped the government from proposing to relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps in the south-eastern district of Cox's Bazar, which borders Myanmar, to its marshy shores.

Bangladesh last month said it was looking to move the estimated 32,000 registered refugees, in part because they were hampering tourism in the coastal resort district - home to the world's longest unbroken beach.

The proposal has been met with alarm from leaders of the Rohingya, who began arriving more than two decades ago after fleeing persecution in Myanmar and whose desperate search for a secure homeland has recently been thrown into the spotlight by a regional human trafficking crisis.

The UN refugee agency, which has been helping them since 1992, said the move would be "logistically challenging" - an assessment confirmed by a recent visit to the area by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Police on the neighbouring island of Hatiya prevented the boat AFP was travelling on from going to Thengar Char, saying they could not guarantee its safety. But accounts from local people and a forest department official who oversaw the 2011 planting of mangroves on Thengar Char gave an indication of the challenges. "At high tide, the entire island is under (about a metre) of water," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is impossible to live there," he said, comparing the plan to "compelling a guest to sit on a spiked chair after inviting him to your home".

Low-lying Thengar Char, about 30km east of Hatiya island, emerged from the sea only around eight years ago and does not appear on Google Maps.

Getting there is impossible during the monsoon months of June to September, when the seas are perilous - and the island completely cut off.

The island, around two hours away from the mainland by speedboat, is in an area frequently hit by cyclones, which have killed thousands of people in Hatiya and Bangladesh's southern coast in the past.

Hatiya's top government official A.H.M. Moyeenuddin said the island was chosen by a team of government surveyors sent by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He admitted that relocating thousands to the island would be challenging, but said the construction of cyclone shelters, a barrage and a hospital would be enough to "make the place liveable".

Most of Myanmar's 1.3 million Rohingya have no citizenship and are considered by the government to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Those living in the Bangladesh camps have refugee status and receive support from the United Nations, meaning they have access to food, shelter and other basic necessities.

But as Bangladesh and Myanmar face international scrutiny over the fate of the stateless Rohingya, some fear a plot to move them as far from scrutiny as possible.

"There are other islands nearby, habitable for humans," said the forest department official. "But somehow, this island, which becomes inundated during every single high tide, was proposed as the relocation site."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE