DHAKA: Bangladesh has ordered construction to start at a desolate island where it wants to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, an official said Thursday, despite warnings the site is uninhabitable.
The move comes as Human Rights Watch described as "ridiculous" claims by Bangladesh that shifting the Rohingya to a barren island prone to monsoonal flooding would improve their living conditions.
Bangladesh is seeking international support for its plan to relocate the Rohingya to Thengar Char in the Bay of Bengal, an idea that caused outcry when first mooted in 2015.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deployed an aide to the remote island Wednesday, who ordered construction begin on a jetty, helipad and visitor facilities, the government official overseeing administration of Thengar Char told AFP.
"He asked that those structures were built promptly, so visitors could have easier access to the island," said Rezaul Karim, the official who accompanied the prime minister's aide to Thengar Char, told AFP.
"He asked that construction be completed within the next 15 days."
Karim could not provide a timeline for when the proposed relocation would begin.
The government estimates 400,000 Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh, including nearly 70,000 who have arrived since October fleeing violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.
Most of those who fled to Bangladesh live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar district, which borders Rakhine state and is home to the country's biggest tourist resort.
Last month, Bangladesh established a committee comprised of state officials in coastal districts to oversee the plan, and ordered authorities to help identify and relocate undocumented Myanmar nationals to the island.
Dhaka has urged the international community to back the proposal, describing it as "temporary" and claiming the Rohingya would have better access to humanitarian assistance.
The proposal has been slammed by rights groups, who have urged Bangladesh to drop its plan to populate the undeveloped 6,000-acre (2,430-hectare) island with refugees.
"The Bangladesh government is making the ridiculous claim that relocating Rohingya refugees to an island with absolutely no facilities that is deluged at high tide and submerged during the monsoon season will improve their living conditions," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement late Wednesday.
"This proposal is both cruel and unworkable and should be abandoned."