More than US$280 million has been spent on developing Bhasan Char. (Photo: AFP)
Bangladeshi authorities have started transferring hundreds of Rohingya refugees from overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar to a remote silt island in the Bay of Bengal in a move that received backing from a church official but strong opposition from rights groups.
Government officials said the process of relocating the first batch of some 2,500 refugees to Bhasan Char (Floating Island) started on Dec. 3.
Some 11 buses carrying 1,642 Rohingya men, women and children departed from the Ukhiya area of Cox’s Bazar and arrived at the port of Chittagong, from where the refugees were being shipped to the island that has been developed with modern facilities to accommodate up to 100,000 refugees.
Khorshed Alam Khan, deputy commissioner of Noakhali district, which covers the island, said that all arrangements have been made for their well-being on Bhasan Char.
The government went ahead with the relocation plan amid concerns from international aid agencies including the UN and strong opposition from rights groups.
Reports in international media and statements from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International that quoted Rohingya people alleged the refugees were coerced by force, cash and other incentives for relocation.
HRW and Amnesty issued statements calling for immediate dropping of the relocation plan and the UN said it was not involved in the relocation process.
Officials from the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation denied the allegations and said the relocation has been voluntary.
Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Peace and Justice Commission, backed the government decision.
“Camps in Cox’s Bazar area overcrowded and the pressure should be reduced. The government is relocating them to a good place with better facilities. So, what is the problem?” Father Sen told UCA News.
The priest, however, pointed to problems the government failed to handle properly.
“The government decided to do it alone, but it should have involved the United Nations and other international organizations. If any problem occurs, Bangladesh will be the only one to blame. The government must keep it in mind and fulfil all basic needs of refugees including food, health and education,” Father Sen added.
Despite allegations of coercion, a leader from Kutupalong refugee camp claimed he is not aware of relocation by force.
“A relative of mine headed for Bhasan Char yesterday with a five-member family willingly. I am not aware of any pressure. Now, I will see what actually happens on the island. If the people are provided with proper services like food, health and education as promised, I will be the next to go there with my family,” Hamid Nur, 42, a Rohingya father of three, told UCA News.
Rights activist Nur Khan expressed his concerns over the move.
“It is unacceptable to me that Bangladesh decided to relocate Rohingya to Bhasan Char without involving the UN. It should have paid heed to opposition of human rights organizations. I can only hope the government will take care of the refugees properly,” Khan told UCA News
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.
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.