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Bangladesh might exile Rohingya refugees to remote island that the tide covers

Oma Salema, 12, holds her undernourished brother, one-year-old Ayub Khan, 1, at a camp for Rohingya in Sittwe, Myanmar, this month. Photo: New York Times

By Annie Gowen
June 27, 2015

Mohammed Islam is a Rohingya Muslim who has lived in a refugee camp in Bangladesh since he was nine, after his family fled religious tension in his home country of Myanmar.

His life is one of uncertainty coupled with despair, which has deepened in recent weeks because of a Bangladesh government proposal to move 32,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island that swamps at high tide.

"We don't want to die," he said in an interview. "We are already persecuted; we don't want to suffer more."

Islam, now 29, is an activist at the Nayapara camp, a foetid assemblage of tarp-roofed huts in the touristy Cox's Bazar beachfront area in southern Bangladesh. He said he and other refugees don't want to leave to move to a barren, 40-square-kilometre island in the Bay of Bengal, a two-hour speedboat ride away.

"The refugees are deeply concerned," he said of the island, which completely floods when the tide rolls in. "We are not willing to move from this place until they find a solution."

The remote island, Thengar Char, disappears completely under water at high tide, and has no roads or barriers to flooding, according to an AFP report. Accounts from locals and a forest department official who oversaw the planting of mangroves on Thengar Char in 2011 gave an indication of the challenges, according to AFP.

"At high tide the entire island is under three to four feet (0.9 metres to 1.2 metres) of water," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is impossible to live there."

About 32,000 Rohingya Muslims live in two government-run camps in the Cox's Bazar area, according to the United Nations, but the government estimates that hundreds of thousands of other Rohingyas live illegally in Bangladesh, a country of more than 155 million.

The stateless Rohingya Muslims have long been victims of persecution in Myanmar. Their situation worsened during violent ethnic clashes in 2012 between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state that resulted in more than 100,000 Rohingya being confined to displacement camps.

More than 25,000 Rohingya and others have fled both Bangladesh and the Myanmar camps since January, according to the United Nations, precipitating an international crisis after thousands became stranded at sea attempting to enter Malaysia and Thailand.

Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, criticised the migrants in remarks last month, saying they were "mentally sick" for wanting to leave Bangladesh, adding, "they are tainting the image of the country along with pushing their life into danger".

Mrs Hasina had reportedly visited Cox's Bazar in the northern hemisphere autumn and decided that the grimy Rohingya camps were an impediment to tourism, officials said. A plan to relocate them was launched.

Gowher Rizvi, an adviser and special representative to Mrs Hasina, said that the proposed move was still in the preliminary stages and that no final decision had been made.

"There are a large number of Rohingyas, as you know, in Cox's Bazar area, which is not ideal for keeping people there," he said. "There have been discussions about whether or not a better or more suitable location can be found."

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