A United Nations human rights investigator on Myanmar has voiced deep concern at Bangladesh’s plan to relocate 23,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island, saying it may not be habitable and could create a “new crisis”.
Bangladesh says moving refugees to Bhasan Char — a name meaning “floating island” — will ease chronic overcrowding at Cox’s Bazar, where some 730,000 Rohingya people have taken shelter, creating the world’s largest refugee camp.
The UN says the Muslim minority fled mass killings and rapes committed during an army crackdown in Rakhine state in Myanmar since August 2017.
Some humanitarian groups have criticised the relocation plan, saying the island is vulnerable to frequent cyclones and cannot provide a livelihood for thousands of people.
“There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable,” said Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, who visited the island in the Bay of Bengal in January.
“It is incumbent on the government of Bangladesh to ensure that this is not brought about.”
There was no immediate reaction from Bangladesh.
Ms Lee, who is banned from visiting Myanmar, also told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that up to 10,000 civilians are reported to have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since November due to violence and a lack of humanitarian aid.
She urged the UN Security Council to refer alleged atrocities against Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and later said that ICC officials were in Bangladesh as part of a preliminary examination of whether a prosecution over the alleged deportations of Rohingya could be launched.
“I am very hopeful. This is something that was unprecedented,” Ms Lee said.
Last September the ICC prosecutor opened a preliminary examination into whether alleged forced deportations of Rohingya from Myanmar could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.
But Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, said the Hague-based court — which is legally independent from the UN — had “no jurisdiction over Myanmar whatsoever”.
“Whilst the Government is unable to accept this legally dubious intervention by the ICC, Myanmar is fully committed to ensuring accountability where there is credible evidence of human rights violations committed in Rakhine State,” he said.
The most pressing task is to focus on a speedy start to repatriating the refugees, he said, without using the word “Rohingya” — who are mostly stateless in Myanmar.