(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
DHAKA/BHASAN CHAR/COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh - Bangladesh is racing to turn an uninhabited and muddy Bay of Bengal island into home for 100,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled a military crackdown in Myanmar, amid conflicting signals from top Bangladeshi officials about whether the refugees would end up being stranded there.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said on Monday that putting Rohingya on the low-lying island would be a "temporary arrangement" to ease congestion at the camps in Cox's Bazar, refuge for nearly 700,000 who have crossed from the north of Myanmar's Rakhine state since the end of August last year.
However, one of her advisers told Reuters that, once there, they would only be able to leave the island if they wanted to go back to Myanmar or were selected for asylum by a third country.
"It's not a concentration camp, but there may be some restrictions. We are not giving them a Bangladeshi passport or ID card," said H.T. Imam, adding that the island would have a police encampment with 40-50 armed personnel.
British and Chinese engineers are helping prepare the island to receive refugees before the onset of monsoon rains in April, which could bring disastrous flooding to ramshackle camps further south that now teem with about 1 million Rohingya.
Hasina's adviser, Imam, said the question of selecting Rohingya in Cox's Bazar to move to the island was not finalized, but it could be decided by lottery or on a volunteer-basis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement: "We would emphasize that any relocation plan involving refugees would need to be based on and implemented through voluntary and informed decisions."