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Bangladesh plans to relocate thousands of Rohingya who have spent years in refugee camps near the Burma border to a southern island, an official said on Wednesday, as the region faces a human-trafficking crisis.
The government has started planning the relocation to Hatiya island in the Bay of Bengal in a move backed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said additional secretary Amit Kumar Baul.
“The relocation of the Rohingya camps will definitely take place. So far, informal steps have been taken according to the PM’s directives,” Baul, head of the government’s Burma Refugee Cell, told AFP.
A Rohingya leader urged the government to rethink, saying the plan would only make life worse for the refugees, many of whom have been languishing in the camps for years since they left Burma.
“We want the [Bangladesh] government and international organisations to resolve our issue from here,” Mohammad Islam, a community leader in one of the camps, told AFP.
Bangladesh is home to 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees who are sheltering in two camps in the southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar which borders Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
The Muslim Rohingya leave Burma largely to escape discriminatory treatment by the Buddhist majority.
The United Nations refugee agency, which has been assisting the refugees in the camps since 1991, said such a scheme would have to be voluntary to succeed.
“The success of the plan would depend on what will be on offer in the new location and if the refugees would like to be there,” UNHCR spokeswoman Onchita Shadman told AFP.
A forced relocation would be “very complex and controversial”, she said.
Baul said the move was partly motivated by concerns the camps were holding back tourism in Cox’s Bazar, home to the world’s longest unbroken beach where locals flock to hotels and resorts.
“The government has been paying [increasing] importance to the tourism sector. Therefore, a plan to relocate them to an isolated area is under process,” he said.
Thousands of persecuted Rohingya from Burma as well as Bangladeshi migrants have been attempting perilous boat journeys organised by people-smugglers to Southeast Asia.
Malaysia is a favourite destination. Migrants often travelled to Thailand by boat, then overland to northern Malaysia.
But Thailand began a crackdown on smuggling following the discovery of mass graves there, which appears to have thrown regional human-trafficking routes into chaos.
More than 3,500 migrants have arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil in recent weeks, and hundreds or thousands more are feared still trapped on boats. Seven camps – some with dozens of graves believed to contain the bodies of Rohingya – have been uncovered in Thailand’s Songkhla Province close to the Malaysian border.
Rights groups say local people must have been aware of the trade, and on Wednesday Thai police said they wanted villagers to aid their investigation.
Malaysian media reported that police are investigating 12 of their own officers to determine whether they had links to more mass graves found within Malaysia, close to the Thai sites.
A total of 139 grave sites and 28 recently abandoned camps have been found on the Malaysian side of the frontier, but the number of dead is unclear.
The US Wednesday backed the investigation, calling for a “transparent, credible and expeditious effort” and urging Malaysian authorities to prosecute those responsible.
Details of Bangladesh’s plans emerged just days after Hasina slammed Bangladesh’s own economic migrants, calling them “mentally sick” and accusing them of hurting the country’s image.
The island plan, reported this week in local media, has not been formally announced but officials have been tasked with preparing for the relocation.
Badre Firdaus, government administrator of Hatiya island, said 500 acres had been identified as suitable for the relocation.
The move would not include the estimated 200,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees who have fled across the border over the past decade and taken refuge in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Most live close to the two camps but are not entitled to food or other aid.
Rights groups say those illegal Rohingya migrants survive in appalling conditions in Bangladesh, living on the margins and running the gauntlet of the country’s authorities.
The camps are a nine-hour journey by land and sea from Hatiya, home to Bangladeshi farmers and fishermen and located at the mouth of the Meghna river in the Bay of Bengal.
The UN have confirmed that 200 migrants who were rescued by the Burmese navy on 22 May off the coast of Maungdaw are from Bangladesh.
“The UN commended both the Union Government of Myanmar and Rakhine State Government for the important rescue of over 200 migrants in Myanmar waters on 21 May,” said a statement on 25 May.
“Of these rescued migrants it is believed that 200 are young Bangladeshi males, 19 of whom were minors between 15-17 years of age,” it said.
During the visit of UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar and senior UN Representatives to Arakan State, “both sides discussed the seriousness of the situation of migrant smuggling, human trafficking and irregular migration affecting both Myanmar and the broader region,” and “agreed on the need for concerted action against the brokers and criminal syndicates involved in perpetrating such activities throughout the region.”
Monday’s statement also says that: “The UN recognizes and appreciates the recent improvements in the conditions in Rakhine, including efforts to improve the situation of the IDPs,” but that: “more work needs to be done to address the daily issues of discrimination, restricted freedom of movement, and deprivation of fundamental rights faced by the IDPs and other Muslim populations.”