DHAKA: The UN’s refugee agency has started humanitarian operations at a controversial Rohingya refugee camp island in the Bay of Bengal, officials in Bangladesh have confirmed.
The move came after UN teams carried out several assessment trips to the site, the establishment of which the organization had initially rejected.
Since December, Bangladeshi authorities have moved 20,000 out of a planned 100,000 people to Bhasan Char island to take pressure off Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee settlement that already hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims.
Tens of thousands of people from the ethnic and religious minority group fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in northern Rakhine state in 2017.
Prior to, and at the start of, the relocation program, the UNHCR had criticized the Bangladeshi government’s $350 million project on the grounds of safety and Bhasan Char’s livability, as the island, 68 kilometers from the mainland, is vulnerable to severe weather and flooding.
In October, however, the UN signed an agreement with the Bangladeshi government to start humanitarian operations on the island and sent teams to assess technical needs at the site.
UNHCR assistance at the camp recently got underway as a third team arrived at the island, Regina de la Portilla, UNHCR spokesperson in Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News on Wednesday.
She said: “The UN has begun responding to urgent needs identified during the first missions, which include health, protection, nutrition, site management, and logistics. To respond to these pressing needs, the UNHCR has begun providing additional support to partner organizations that were already operational on Bhasan Char.”
She added that the refugee agency and the UN World Food Program were setting up logistics systems on the island for food transportation, storage, and distribution.
Nowsher Ibne Halim, in charge of the Bhasan Char island camp, told Arab News the UNHCR was still preparing the ground for full-fledged operations.
He said: “Since the beginning of November, different UN teams have been visiting the island every week. Mostly they were assessing current needs, identifying what was lacking, and strengthening for support for humanitarian operations with local partners.
“If everything goes well, we hope the UN will start operations here in full swing by the end of December or early next year.”
While the UN engagement has been welcomed by Bangladeshi authorities, Dhaka regards Bhasan Char as a temporary solution to the refugee crisis.
Humayun Kabir, former Bangladeshi ambassador to the US, told Arab News: “The world community should act more to ensure a conducive environment in Rakhine so that these Rohingyas can be repatriated to their homeland.
“We all should keep it in mind that relocating the Rohingyas to the island is not a sustainable solution.”