DHAKA, Bangladesh – Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh are worried about a government proposal to relocate them to a low-lying island deemed not ready for people to live there.
The proposal briefly posted on a government website last week said a committee including representatives of the border guards and other agencies would prepare a list of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to be relocated to the island of Thengar Char in southeastern Bangladesh. The Cabinet Division official who signed the circular admitted it was removed from the website but refused to comment further.
The low-lying island is in the estuary of the River Meghna and emerged from the sea only eight years ago. It is difficult to reach without boats and becomes flooded during any storm that causes a tidal surge. Thengar Char is about 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of the more-populated Hatiya island.
The government circular made no mention of what would be done to prepare the island for habitation or any potential timing.
Some 300,000 Rohingya Muslims have lived in Bangladesh for decades after fleeing there from neighboring Myanmar in the face of persecution by its military and majority Buddhists. An additional 66,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since October, fleeing violent retaliation after the killings of nine Myanmar border police.
About 33,000 of them live in two official camps in the southern coastal district of Cox's Bazar.
Abu Bakar Siddique, president of the unregistered Rohingya at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that authorities have never discussed the prospect of relocation with them officially but they were aware of it from media reports.
"Frankly we want to go back to Myanmar if our rights are ensured. If that does not happen soon, we have no other way but to follow Bangladesh government's order. We have no other choices. We are worried," he said by phone from the camp.
Myanmar said it had no opinion on Bangladesh's relocation proposal because it didn't know if the people affected were from Myanmar. Historically, Myanmar's government has considered the Rohingya in that country to be Bangladeshi immigrants and denies most of them citizenship.
"They don't need our opinion about whatever they do with these people in their country. It has nothing to do with our country," Aye Aye Soe, deputy director of the Myanmar Foreign Ministry political department, told The Associated Press. "Maybe they don't consult with us because these people are not from Myanmar. Without verifying whether these people are from Myanmar or not, we cannot say anything."
Mohammed Nur, secretary of the camp's Rohingya, said they were "a bit worried" but they would have to discuss the issue with others before responding to any proposal by the government.
"We must follow the government's desire," he said. "Our sufferings have no limit, we just do not want to suffer more," he said.
The plan for relocation first came up in a Cabinet meeting in 2015 but no major progress was made. The issue was never dropped despite criticism, including from the United Nations, which said relocation to the island would further complicate the issue because of how often it floods.
Associated Press writer Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.