The U.N.’s refugee agency says it wants to meet with Bangladesh government officials to discuss concerns about Dhaka’s plan to move thousands of Rohingya from Cox’s Bazar to an island in the Bay of Bengal as a way to ease pressure on overcrowded camps.

In October, a Bangladeshi official announced that the government planned to begin moving Rohingya to Bhashan Char during the first week of this month. Since then, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said technical assessments to evaluate safety and sustainability of life on the island needed to be done first.

“These assessments focus on such issues as exposure to cyclone risks and other natural hazards, as well as the adequacy of water resources,” UNHCR spokeswoman Louise Donovan told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, earlier this week in response to questions sent via email.

“We have also said that critical protection and operational issues must be considered, including refugee access to basic rights and services, such as health care and education, livelihood opportunities, as well as their ability to move within Bhashan Char and to and from the mainland,” Donovan said, adding, “We look forward to resuming discussions with the government on these key issues soon.”

Since announcing Bhashan Char as a relocation site for about 100,000 Rohingya two years ago, the government has constructed a housing complex, a retaining wall to protect from flooding and cyclone shelters on the island.

In mid-October, Enamur Rahman, Bangladesh’s state minister in charge of disaster management and relief, said 350 Rohingya families or about 3,000 people had responded positively to the government’s request that they relocate to Bhashan Char this month. The island is 21 nautical miles from Noakhali district in Chittagong.

At that time, Fatema Begum, a resident at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, said she and her family were willing to move to the island where they expected to have more room to call their own.

“Here, the rooms are very small. We have four people living in a room five feet by six feet,” she told BenarNews. “I have seen a video on Bhashan Char. The rooms look wide and comfortable. So, we have decided to go there willfully.”

Waiting for the ‘greenlight’

On Wednesday, State Minister Rahman said that plans to relocate Rohingya were uncertain.

“We had meetings with the U.N. agencies regarding the relocation. But we have yet to get clearance from the U.N. agencies and the international NGOs,” he told BenarNews. “Unless they greenlight it, we cannot start the relocation.”

“We can give them shelter, health care, security and meet other needs, but the U.N. provides them with food, so we need U.N. agencies,” he added.

Rahman said government officials had planned to visit Bhashan Char this week with representatives from the U.N. and international NGOs that support the Rohingya to discuss the relocation plan.

“But the team will not go as the government has yet to get any response from the U.N. agencies and the international NGOs,” Rahman said.

Meanwhile, Donovan said the U.N.’s longstanding position was that any relocation to Bhashan Char must be voluntary.

“A consultative process between the government and the refugees will be important and the U.N. has offered its advice and support,” Donovan said.

Bangladesh has been housing 1.2 million Rohingya, who fled from neighboring Myanmar, in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar. Of those, more than 740,000 escaped a government crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state beginning in August 2017.

The two nations agreed on a plan in November 2017 to repatriate the Rohingya, but all efforts since then have failed as those cleared to go have said they do not want to return to Myanmar.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.