Bangladesh must not force Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar to move to camps on a desolate island, the UN refugee chief said Monday.
Authorities have stepped up moves to house the Rohingya on the island in the Bay of Bengal since a new surge which now totals 436,000 refugees started arriving on August 25.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had mentioned the relocation plan when they met in July. There were already 300,000 Rohingya in camps near the border at Cox's Bazar before the latest influx started.
But he insisted that any move from the camps to Bhashan Char island -- also known as Thengar Char -- "has to be voluntary on the part of the refugees".
"We cannot force people to go to the place. So the option for the medium term, let’s say -- I don’t want to talk about long-term -- has to be also something that is acceptable to the people that go there," he said.
"Otherwise it won’t work. Otherwise people won’t go."
The United Nations has praised Bangladesh for taking in the Rohingya, who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar. It has appealed for international help for the authorities.
"It is good to think ahead. These people (Rohingya) may not be able to go back very quickly and especially now the population has now doubled," Grandi told a Dhaka press briefing.
The UNHCR chief said his agency was ready to help the island plan with a "technical study of the options.
"That's all that we are ready to give. We are not giving it yet because I have not seen any concrete options on any paper."
The small island in the estuary of the Meghna river is a one-hour boat ride from Sandwip, the nearest inhabited island, and two hours from Hatiya, one of Bangladesh's largest islands.
The government has tasked the navy with making it ready for the Rohingya. Two helipads and a small road have been built.
The authorities first proposed settling the Rohingya there in 2015, as the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar became overstretched.
But the plan was apparently shelved last year amid reports that the silty island, which only emerged from the sea in 2006, was often uninhabitable due to regular tidal flooding.
In recent weeks, Bangladesh has appealed for international support to move the Rohingya to the island as the impoverished nation struggles to cope with the influx
More than 436,000 refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar's Rakhine state since August 25 when a military crackdown was launched following attacks by Rohingya terrorists.
There is not enough food, water or medicine to go around. Roads around the camps are littered with human excrement, fuelling UN fears that serious disease could quickly break out.