Newly arrived Rohingya refugees make their way to a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on October 2 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Newly arrived Rohingya refugees make their way to a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on October 2 2017. Picture: REUTERS

Dhaka — Bangladesh says it will start relocating tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from overcrowded camps to a remote island vulnerable to extreme weather, despite the plan attracting considerable controversy.

Shelters and flood walls have been constructed on Bhashan Char, a muddy silt islet that only rose from the Bay of Bengal in 2006, in the hope of shifting 100,000 Rohingya refugees there.

Bangladesh has been talking about the island for years and the plan to relocate some of the nearly 1-million Rohingya refugees living along its border with Myanmar has stalled many times. The proposal to uproot the refugees remains unpopular among the Rohingya community and critics have raised concerns about the island’s ability to withstand violent storms during the monsoon.

Mozammel Huq, the head of Bangladesh’s cabinet committee on law and order and a senior government minister, said the relocation would proceed as planned. “We plan to start the process next month, as construction at Bhashan Char is now complete,” he said.

Kamal Hossain, the government administrator of Cox’s Bazar district where the vast Rohingya camps are located, said a list  of refugees who would "voluntarily go to the island” was being prepared.

The island is one hour by boat from the nearest land and experts said it was too risky to house the refugees on the island as it is prone to flooding during storm surges. Hundreds of thousands have died in Bangladesh from cyclones in the past 50 years, mostly in coastal areas.

Local officials have pointed to a newly constructed 3m high embankment around the island they say will keep out tidal surges in the event of a cyclone. But a top UN rights expert in January warned moving the refugees there could spark a “new crisis” for the persecuted Muslim minority.

Huq said the UN “should concentrate on the welfare of the Rohingya instead”. “It is up to Bangladesh to decide where we will keep the refugees,” he said.

Aid groups have warned the refugees crammed into the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar are at risk of landslides, disease and floods. The Rohingya fled Myanmar by droves in 2017 into Bangladesh, escaping a military-led crackdown the UN has said could amount to genocide.