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Bangladesh accused of coercing Rohingya for island relocation

Rights group says many refugees have not given full and informed consent to moving to Bhasan Char

UCA News reporter, Dhaka

UCA News reporter, Dhaka

Updated: November 23, 2020 09:47 AM GMT
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Bangladesh accused of coercing Rohingya for island relocation

Rohingya refugees are seen at Kutupalong refugee camp of Bangladesh. Rights group Amnesty International has urged Bangladeshi authorities to drop a plan for relocation of refugees to a remote island. (Photo: UCA News)

Amnesty International has urged Bangladeshi authorities to immediately drop a plan for relocation of Rohingya refugees to a remote island allegedly by coercion.

The London-based rights group said it is alarmed by media reports stating the Bangladesh government has completed preparations to transfer some 100 Rohingya families from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char (Floating Island).

“Aside from the fact that Bhasan Char has not been deemed safe for human habitation by the UN, there are serious questions over this relocation procedure. Many of the Rohingya we have spoken to have not given full and informed consent to being moved to an island they know nothing about,” said Omar Waraich, head of South Asia at Amnesty International.

“Any decisions relating to the relocation of refugees must be transparent and involve the full participation of the Rohingya people. In the meantime, plans for any further relocations must be abandoned. The Bangladeshi authorities must let the UN carry out an assessment of Bhashan Char and immediately return the hundreds of Rohingya refugees currently on the island to their families in Cox’s Bazar.”

The island already houses some 300 Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rakhine state who were rescued from the sea on their way to Malaysia on traffickers’ boats earlier this year.

The agency claimed it obtained a partial list of refugees slated for relocation to Bhasan Char and talked to some who expressed mixed to negative feelings over relocation.

A woman with a young child told Amnesty that she signed up for relocation as her husband is on the island and she has been facing various problems in the camp.

“It’s very difficult to live this refugee life. I don’t have any other option. It seems that the government will never allow my husband to get out of the island,” she said.

Two refugee families said their names were put on the list after they reported damage of their shelters to Rohingya community leaders, but the authorities told them to relocate to Bhasan Char instead of repairing the shelters.

A member of a family said he wanted to relocate in 2019 because his family were being deprived of aid by local community leaders. Although the issue has been resolved, the family are still on the list for relocation.

Rezuwan Khan, 23, a Rohingya teacher and poet from Kutupalong refugee camp, said that some Rohingya expressed willingness to relocate after a recent visit to the island by a group of majhi (community leaders) from Sept. 6-8, but most refugees are skeptical about relocation.

“Rohingya refugees want safe and dignified repatriation to Myanmar, not relocation to Bhasan Char. Only a few want to move there and they think their lives would be better as they have been told by the authorities and some majhi,” Khan told UCA News.

“My family won’t relocate there no matter how bad things are here. We want to go back to our homeland in Myanmar.”

An official from the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission confirmed the relocation plan to UCA News and claimed everyone on the list had signed up voluntarily without giving details of when it might start.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said this week that most Rohingya are willing to relocate voluntarily.

“Most of them [Rohingya] have agreed to go there. The relocation process is being delayed only because of pressure from international agencies and NGOs,” he told state-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha news agency.

Compared to overcrowding and disaster-prone situations in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya can have a much better and secure life in Bhasan Char, he added.

Bhasan Char, only reachable by a two-hour boat journey, was an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal and prone to flooding and storms during the monsoon.

Bangladesh first floated the relocation plan to transfer about 100,000 refugees to the island in 2015 but stepped back after criticism from charities and rights groups. The plan was revived after the 2017 Rohingya exodus which saw more than 740,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh.

More than US$280 million has been spent on developing the island, including construction of 120 cluster villages and strong flood and storm embankments stretching over 13 kilometers.

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