By Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) – U.N. officials signed a deal with Bangladesh on Saturday to help provide basic services to thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who have been moved to camps on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.
The Bangladeshi government has moved nearly 19,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char island from border camps despite protests by some refugees and opposition from rights groups, who say the low-lying island is vulnerable to flooding and storms.
Authorities in the densely populated South Asian country eventually want the island to accommodate about 10% of the 1 million Rohingya refugees who currently live in ramshackle border camps after fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar.
UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, said the agreement signed on Saturday allowed for close cooperation with the government on providing services for the island’s growing refugee population.
“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,” a UNHCR statement said.
About 81,000 Rohingya should be living on the island within three months, Mohammad Mohsin, a senior official at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told reporters after singing the accord.
Refugees in Bhasan Char, some of whom have protested against living conditions on the island, welcomed UNHCR’s involvement.
“Now we’ll get enough of the assistance that we need,” Mohammed Arman, a Rohingya refugee told Reuters by telephone.
Residents of the island’s camps have said they face restrictions on movement, no opportunities to earn a livelihood and inadequate healthcare and education.
Dozens of people died after a fishing boat crammed with Rohingya trying to flee the island sank in August.
Some Rohingya have spoken of being coerced to go to Bhasan Char, but Bangladesh says relocation is voluntary and has dismissed safety concerns – citing the building of flood defences, housing for 100,000 people and hospitals.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Helen Popper)