COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH - Authorities in Bangladesh said Tuesday that they want to start relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees to a Bay of Bengal island soon from crammed camps near the border with Myanmar, from where they fled.
Top government administrator in Cox's Bazar, Kamal Hossain, said they listed 100 families willing to move to Bhasan Char, an island hours by boat from the mainland. The government has said it will relocate 100,000 refugees to the island in phases.
Hossain said they wanted to start the relocations in late November or in December.
"Our government policy regarding the Rohingya refugees is no force will be used to handle them. We have long been working with them for confidence building for the relocation," Hossain said. "I have a list of 100 families comprising of some 7,000 refugees."
He said they were working to try to convince more refugees to move to the island.
The government set several deadlines earlier to complete the development of the island, but no final dates were announced. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina repeatedly told the U.N. and other international partners that her administration would engage them before making a final decision on the relocation.
The government has been building infrastructure on the island including homes, schools, mosques and flood protection embankments under a multimillion-dollar project.
The plan for relocation first came up in 2015, but no major progress was initially made. But the issue was never dropped despite criticism, including from the United Nations and global human rights groups, which said relocation to the island would further complicate the lives of the refugees because of how often it floods. Many Rohingya were also against the idea but things started to change in recent years, especially after a huge influx of Rohingya in 2017.
More than 1 million Rohingya currently live in Bangladesh, with over 700,000 coming from Myanmar since late August 2017 amid a violent crackdown on Rohingya by the country's military.
Syed Alam, a 32-year-old refugee, said Tuesday that he listed his 11 family members for the relocation.
"I have seen a video of the island. I have seen concrete buildings there. Here we live in very bad conditions. I think my family will have a better accommodation there," he said.
Alam said many others in his camp have been consulted already and they are increasingly showing interest.
Another refugee, Mostofa Kamal, 45, said he convinced his children and wife to move to the island.
"Here our life is terrible. There is no space here. I don't think we will be able to go back in Myanmar very soon. We want to have a better place to stay,'" Kamal said.
In August, Bangladesh and Myanmar attempted to start the repatriation of Rohingya for a second time, but no refugees agreed to voluntarily go back, citing safety concerns in Myanmar. The United Nations said Myanmar needed to do more to build confidence among the Rohingya for the repatriation.
Rohingya Muslims have long demanded that Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, give them citizenship, safety and their own land and homes they left behind. Myanmar has refused to recognize Rohingya as citizens or even as one of its ethnic groups, rendering them stateless. Rohingya also face other forms of state-sanctioned discrimination.
A U.N.-established investigation last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar's top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the crackdown on the Rohingya. Myanmar dismissed the allegations.