Bangladesh begins moving Rohingya families to remote island

Rights groups call for relocation to be halted on safety concerns and lack of consent from refugees

Bangladesh has begun moving Rohingya families from camps near the Myanmar border to a settlement on a remote island, despite concerns about its safety and a lack of consent from the refugees.

Families could be seen loading white sacks of belongings into buses that arrived overnight on Wednesday to take them to the port city of Chittagong for transfer by boat to Bhasan Char.

About 1,000 people had already been moved, regional police chief Anwar Hossain told AFP.

Bangladesh said it planed to move 2,500 families but rights groups say refugees have been listed without their consent.


They also called on Bangladesh to halt the relocation to allow an independent inspection of the island.

"It is crucial that the Bangladeshi authorities let the UN, rights groups and humanitarian agencies carry out independent assessments of Bhashan Char's habitability first before taking any steps to relocate people there. No relocation plan, either to Bhashan Char or to another location, can be undertaken without the full and informed consent of the individuals involved," said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International's south Asia campaigner.


Refugees in Kutupalong say people are worried, staying close to their homes since the relocations started, and that all transport inside the camps has been banned by the authorities.

Since April about 300 Rohingya have been living on Bhasan Char, sent there after being picked up at sea. There have been allegations made against guards of sexual assault and videos emerged of women screaming to be allowed to return to the mainland after Bangladesh took a delegation of camp leaders, known as majhis, to visit the island in September.

The island was formed from a build-up of silt in the Bay of Bengal only 20 years ago, and concerns have been consistently raised about Bhasan Char’s exposure to extreme weather and distance from the mainland in emergencies since Bangladesh first raised the idea in 2015.

The Rohingya themselves had firmly resisted being moved but since the influx of 700,000 more refugees arrived, fleeing a brutal crackdown by Myanmar three years ago, many have grown tired of the conditions in the crowded settlements.

"We went to the island and I am pretty satisfied with the arrangements there. They have better housing, mosques and madrasas, markets. And the government promised there'll be no lack of aid and support from the UN and other agencies," said Mohammad Hanif (40) a majhi in Kutupalong camp, the world's largest refugee camp.

Mr Hanif said his wife and children had been concerned about moving but were convinced after he told them about the facilities available.

He said they were told the same NGOs operating in the mainland camps would also help on Bhasan Char. However, the UN has not yet agreed to work on the island and in a statement on Wednesday, UNHCR said it had not been involved in the relocations and called on Bangladesh to allow an urgent assessment of the island.

Bangladesh has insisted the new housing on Bhasan Char is superior to the Cox’s Bazar bamboo shelters and that it has built flood defences.

“We were told, there will be members of Bangladeshi authorities too in the island. So whatever odds we’ll be facing in the island, the Bangladeshis will face it too . . . so I think the island must have facilities to survive under bad climate condition,” said Mr Hanif.

“The authorities told us that Bangladeshi government has done so much for us and they gave us shelter and food, they expect us to follow their plan. Because it is for our own good.”

Human Rights Watch and Bangkok-based advocacy group Fortify Rights said they had spoken to refugees in hiding since being told their names were on the lists for relocation.

Mohammad Anis (33) said he decided against going because he does not want to remain in Bangladesh long term.

“I don’t want to go to the island. And no one I know from my block wants to go either,” said Anis, a majhi in Kutupalong.

“We don’t believe they can force this many people to relocate against their will under the watch of the international community. Our demand is only rational and that is to get us back to Myanmar, we don’t want to be refugees all our life.”

There are more than a million Rohingya refugees living in the Cox’s Bazar region, having arrived after repeated surges of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since the early 1990s. – Guardian