DHAKA – Bangladesh reopened the island of Saint Martin in the Bay of Bengal to tourist boats on Monday, marking its first step toward relaxing restrictions along the country’s border with Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis had erupted end of August.
Bangladesh had restricted boats to ferry visitors to the island, a popular tourist destination much sought after for its corals and beaches dotted with coconut palms, after hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas had began to cross over to Bangladesh to escape ongoing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“The situation has improved somewhat as the influx has reduced, although it has not stopped completely. But we cannot eternally close the island off to tourism,” Zahid Hossain Siddique, government representative in Teknaf in the southeastern Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar, told EFE.
The Bangladesh Coast Guard earlier this year had decided to restrict tourist boats to the island over security concerns related to the Rohingya crisis.
However, although restrictions on tourist boats have been lifted, similar restrictions on fishing boats in the Naf River, which separates the two countries, remain in place, Siddique added.
The reopening of the island, with a population of around 4,000 people who depend almost exclusively on fishing and tourism, brings great relief, local travel agent Shah Alam told EFE, adding that the island has worn a deserted look since the last tourist boat had arrived on April 30.
“From grocery shops to hotels (...) everyone relies on tourism in this island,” he added.
On Sept. 4, 2,011 Rohingyas who had taken refuge in Saint Martin were deported to Myanmar from where they had fled, according to the commander of the island’s Coast Guard, Ashraful Islam.
In its latest report released on Sunday, the Inter Sector Coordination Group of the United Nations estimated that 615,500 Rohingyas have arrived in Bangladesh over the last two and a half months, although Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, puts the figure at 622,000.
The Rohingya crisis began on Aug. 25, when Rohingya rebels had launched a series of attacks against government posts in the region, leading to an ongoing military offensive by the Myanmar army.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingyas as citizens of the country and shuns them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
In Bangladesh, too, where some 300,000 members of this minority have already been living before the latest crisis, they are considered foreigners.