(Repeats item first published on Friday with no changes to
By Antoni Slodkowski
THENGAR CHAR, Bangladesh Feb 4 The island is
two hours by boat from the nearest settlement. There are no
buildings, mobile phone reception or people. During the monsoon
it often floods and, when the seas are calm, pirates roam nearby
waters hunting for fishermen to kidnap for ransom.
Welcome to Thengar Char, a muddy stain in the murky waters
of the Bay of Bengal, identified by Bangladesh as a short-term
solution to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its border with
Myanmar, across which some 70,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled.
Those refugees, escaping an army crackdown on insurgents
that began in October, have joined more than 200,000 Rohingya
already living in official and makeshift camps, straining
resources in one of Asia's poorest regions. Bangladesh says the
refugees bring crime and a risk of disease.
The influx has prompted Dhaka to revive a plan - much
criticised by humanitarian workers when it was first proposed in
2015 - to move thousands of people to this uninhabited island
about 250 km (150 miles) northwest of their border camps.
While most experts dismiss the scheme as impractical, a
Bangladeshi minister told Reuters this week that it was
determined to push ahead, adding authorities would provide
shelters, other facilities and livestock.
Local administrators, however, say they have not been
informed, and when Reuters visited the island the only signs of
activity were a few buffalo lazily grazing on the yellow grass
along its shores.
"We have only heard bad things about the Rohingya. If they
work with the pirates and get involved in crime - we don't want
them here," said Mizanur Rahman, 48, the administrator of Might
Bangha village, the closest settlement to Thengar Char.
Rahman added, however, that if the Rohingya were "good
people", they should be helped on humanitarian grounds. Others
from the village echoed that sentiment, saying they were fellow
Muslims and deserved assistance.
The crisis is the biggest challenge facing the government of
Aung San Suu Kyi, straining Myanmar's relations with the
countries of the region hosting large Rohingya populations such
as Bangladesh and Malaysia, but also the United States.
About 1.1 million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions
in northwestern Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship. Many
in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard them as illegal immigrants
from Bangladesh, while the authorities in Dhaka say they are
Myanmar nationals and must ultimately go back.
PIRATES AND MACHINE GUNS
It takes about two hours by boat from Rahman's village on
the coast of Sandwip - one of the largest islands in an
archipelago in southern Bangladesh - to Thengar Char.
Reuters journalists were escorted there by a fishing boat
and a coastguard vessel carrying seven officers equipped with
Chinese-made machine guns to stave off potential pirate attacks.
Villagers complain criminals roam the nearby waters, seizing
vessels, stealing the catch and releasing fishermen only after
receiving a ransom.
Thengar Char is flat and featureless, covered by bushes,
grass and windswept trees.
It emerged from the sea about 11 years ago, off Sandwip's
western coast, one of the myriad of shifting, unstable islands
formed by sediment in the mouth of the mighty Meghna river.
While Thengar Char looked calm on a sunny winter afternoon,
the main objection voiced by aid agencies to Bangladesh's plan
is the area's unforgiving climate.
"These areas are cyclone and flood-prone," said Quamrul
Hassan, a meteorologist at the Bangladesh Weather Department,
adding that the islands in the Bay of Bengal were "especially
risky" to inhabit.
"Average rainfall during the monsoon season in the coastal
areas is more than double that of the other parts of the
Many people living on the islands are regularly evacuated
during the cyclone season to shelters built on the coast, said
local journalist Saleh Noman.
He thought the relocation plan wasn't realistic.
"There is a similar island in the area and it took some 40
years for it to develop. Bet even now it's all very basic," said
There are currently around 30,000 Rohingya living in camps
run by the United Nations near border with Myanmar, while tens
of thousands more are crammed into slums that have grown up
around them, without proper sanitation or healthcare.
The Rohingya from those settlements sometimes find
employment, but most are sustained by local villagers and
rations quietly distributed by international aid agencies.
"We can operate here, but we can't really talk about it,"
said one aid worker based in the border region.
Rohingya refugees Reuters spoke to did not want to stay
where they were - but neither did they want to be moved to
"We left everything in Myanmar," said Abu Salam from Kya
Guang Taung, a village in northern Myanmar that was destroyed in
the crackdown. He crossed the border in December.
"That's where our home is. If only we could get citizenship,
we would like to go back."
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Additional reporting by Ruma
Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Alex Richardson)