By Abdur Rahman and Jesmin Papri
Bangladesh began moving a second batch of nearly 1,800 Rohingya refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal on Monday, undaunted by concerns raised by international humanitarian organizations about the remote isle’s habitability.
The Rohingya boarded buses as they left camps in southeastern Bangladesh for the port city of Chittagong, en route to Bhashan Char Island, where some 1,600 of their fellow refugees were relocated early in December.
“1,772 Rohingya have opted to go to Bhashan Char in the second batch,” Khurshed Alam Khan, the deputy commissioner of Noakhali district, which oversees Bhashan Char, told BenarNews.
“They will stay in Chittagong on Monday and start for Bhashan Char the next day,” Khan said, adding that the refugees were expected to reach the island around noon Tuesday (local time).
The refugees were transported away in some 30 buses amid tight security, according to a BenarNews correspondent.
On Monday, the Dhaka office of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reiterated that its officials were not involved in the relocation process. It also said that a U.N. request to undertake a thorough assessment of Bhashan Char “has been under consideration by the Bangladesh government for some time.”
“The United Nations seeks constructive consultations and dialogue with the Government aimed at better understanding the Bhashan Char project and considering together the most critical policy, process and operational issues,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.
“If relocated to Bhashan Char, refugees should have access to basic rights and services there, including effective freedom of movement to and from the mainland and access to education, healthcare and livelihood opportunities,” UNHCR added.
Earlier in December, however, Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs A.K. Abdul Momen said the U.N. had not formally written to the government about sending a team to Bhashan Char.
Humanitarian organizations had questioned whether the island could withstand cyclones and floods. Some even alleged that the refugees were made to go there against their will – a charge that the Bangladesh government vigorously denied.
On Dec. 23, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democratic member of a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee responsible for human rights, said Bangladesh should stop relocating the Rohingya to Bhashan Char.
“The Government of Bangladesh has done more than any other country to provide safety, aid, and shelter to nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees,” Cardin said in a statement.
“However, I am gravely concerned by their recent efforts to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char, a remote silt island in the Bay of Bengal. I urge Bangladesh to reconsider its plans to relocate any more refugees until independent technical and protection assessments are carried out by the United Nations and voluntariness can be assured.”
Also last week, in a letter to Momen, a coalition of 38 North American Muslim organizations urged the government of Islamic-majority Bangladesh to stop the mass relocation.
“These refugees have already suffered through crimes of genocide and unspeakable violence fueled by discrimination and racism in Myanmar,” the groups said in a statement.
“Immediately stop relocation plans and return those on the island to their families and community in mainland Bangladesh. …The human rights and dignity of Rohingya refugees must be respected and upheld.”
On Dec. 10, the United States, too, called on Dhaka to accept the U.N.’s offer to conduct a thorough and independent assessment of Bhashan Char in order to determine that living there is safe, feasible and desirable.
‘Have been doing well here’
Most of the 1 million Rohingya who fled Myanmar live in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, including more than 740,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017.
In late 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya in early 2018, but there has been no movement since then.
Bangladesh’s plan is to move a total of 100,000 refugees to Bhashan Char in stages. The government says this is needed to ease crowding in the camps located by the Myanmar border in Cox’s Bazar district.
The government spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on Bhashan Char, officials had said.
Md. Ismail Hossain, one of the Rohingya from the first batch of 1,642 who moved to Bhashan Char in early December, said that the conditions on the island were superior to the conditions in the camps.
“All of us have been doing well here. The atmosphere here is much better than that of the camps,” he told BenarNews by phone on Monday.
“One of my sisters lives in Cox’s Bazar. She has been calling repeatedly, saying she wants to come to Bhashan Char.”
BenarNews also spoke to a few of the refugees set to leave on Monday.
“My sister and I have decided to go and we are going willingly. Many of the families are shifting to Bhashan Char. We are going there for a better life,” refugee Razia Begum told BenarNews before she boarded one of the buses to Chittagong.
Another refugee, Md Hossain, was set to leave for the island with seven family members.
“We have heard that the security and other arrangements there [on Bhashan Char] are better. So, we are all moving to Bhashan Char,” he told BenarNews.