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A Rohingya refugee collects drinking water at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on Oct. 7, 2021.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations and the government of Bangladesh on Saturday signed a memorandum of understanding to work together in aiding protection and management of Rohingya refugees on an island in the Bay of Bengal where thousands of them have been relocated from crammed camps near the border with Myanmar, the U.N. said in a statement.

More than 19,000 out of the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Southern Bangladesh have already been moved to the Bhasan Char island by the government, and the U.N. said one of the key reasons to sign the memorandum was to start serving that population.

The government had earlier said that it has a plan to relocate 100,000 refugees to the island in phases from the camps in Cox’s Bazar district.

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The new agreement came as a paradigm shift as the U.N. and other humanitarian groups had criticized the relocation saying the 30-year-old island in the country’s Noakhali district was not fit for habitation. But the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been insisting that the island was developed by spending more than $112 million, and it was no more a vulnerable area, which used to be regularly submerged by monsoon rains. The island has now sea walls, hospitals, schools and mosques, the government says.

After Saturday’s agreement, authorities said another 81,000 refugees would be relocated to the island over next three months.

Despite vehement protest by the U.N., a team of the international body visited the island in March when the U.N. started changing its mind.

In a statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that the new agreement was a further expression of the Bangladesh’s “generosity and support toward the Rohingya population until they can return safely and sustainably to Myanmar.”

The agreement also allows for close cooperation between the government and the U,N. on services and activities to the benefit of the increasing numbers of Rohingya refugees living on the island.

The statement said that the U.N. has held discussions with the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, as well as those already on the island, prior to signing of the agreement.

“These cover key areas of protection, education, skills-training, livelihoods and health, which will help support the refugees to lead decent lives on the island and better prepare them for sustainable return to Myanmar in the future,” according to the statement.

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Johannes Van Der Klaauw, representative at the UNHCR, said the organization has seen the island and believes “significant infrastructure,” has been put in place by the Bangladesh government to offset environmental hazards.

Klaauw also said the memorandum states that movement of refugees back and forth from the island to the main camps in Southern Bangladesh will be permitted on a conditional basis.

Refugees will also have a chance to earn a living through odd jobs that will be accessible once aid organizations set up on the island.

“If ever future refugees move to Bhasan Char, it is on an informed and voluntary basis and they have freedom of movement around on the Char (island). Third, we have also put in this memorandum that the management of the settlements is in civilian hands and is of humanitarian nature because these islands started as a navy base and there are still navy personnel but once we start cooperating for the U.N. or for UNHCR, it’s important that we maintain the humanitarian and civilian nature of such a settlement,” he said.

But most Rohingya refugees say they don’t want to relocate.

A woman who had moved to the island with her family earlier this year aboard a navy ship that carried batches of refugees to the island, said many like her have escaped on boats back to the camp because life on the island is hard for the refugees.

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“If people stay there for a couple of years, all of them might start having mental issues,” she said adding that medical and other aid facilities were not very well set up on the island. She was unwilling to be named, fearing retribution.

Amir Hamza, 63, another refugee said he won’t relocate to the island.

“I will go to the country where I was born, my father and grandfather were born. I have love for that country, and I agree to go to that country. I don’t agree to go to another country, island, or any place, even if I am offered milk and rice on a golden plate. I am ready and happy to go to my country, land, and to my home.”

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar began a harsh crackdown on the Muslim ethnic group following an attack by insurgents. They joined hundreds of thousands of others who have fled to Bangladesh over decades.

Bangladesh attempted to start sending refugees back to Myanmar under a bilateral framework in recent years, but no one was willing to go. Hasina repeatedly told the U.N. and other international partners that her administration would not force any refugees to return to Myanmar, but urged them to put pressure on Myanmar for creating a safe environment to facilitate their voluntary return.

The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in Myanmar, rendering them stateless, and face other forms of state-sanctioned discrimination.

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A U.N.-sponsored investigation in 2018 recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the violence against the Rohingya.

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