Bangladesh starts Rohingya shift to island amid concerns


The resettlement process for 100,000 Rohingya refugees from crammed camps in Bangladesh's southeastern district of Cox's Bazar to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal began Thursday amid concerns from international rights defenders.

According to official sources, nearly 600 Rohingya comprising 100 families started their journey to Bhasan Char, a distant island around 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Bangladesh's southwestern coast, as the first batch.

"They will first reach [the southern port city of] Chottogram and start their journey through the sea route with the supervision of the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard," an official of Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) told Anadolu Agency late Thursday, preferring not to be named as no official statement has been issued.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Cmdr. Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, director of the Bhasan Char Rohingya Camp Rehabilitation Project, said however that all preparations for receiving 100,000 Rohingya have been fully completed on the island.

"We are ready to receive them, and we hope that gradually, interested Rohingya will be sent here following COVID-19 health guidelines and other government procedures," he added.

RRRC Chief Coordinator Dr. Abu Toha MR Bhuiyan told Anadolu Agency that a preliminary medical check-up of every Rohingya has been done before approving them for relocation to the island.

Regarding the selection process of Rohingya for the relocation, he said the whole process is being done on a "completely voluntary" basis.

Concerns of rights defenders

Some international rights defenders have urged the Bangladeshi government to halt the Rohingya relocation move on safety and rights grounds.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement issued Thursday said: "The government has provided limited information to [Rohingya] refugees about the actual conditions on the island, and there are some allegations that the authorities may have offered misleading information and incentives to move there."

Citing one Rohingya's claim before the rights body, the statement added: "He put his name on the list because camp leaders told him that those on the list would be given priority to repatriate to Myanmar and would be given 5,000 [Bangladeshi] taka [US$59]".

But he finally changed his mind to relocate to the island "since he heard about those currently detained on the island and that they are being held in "prison-like facilities" and don't have freedom of movement," according to HRW.

Referring to the 306 Rohingya who are already in Bhasan Char, the statement said: "Those on the island say they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education."

Terming Bhasan Char as an "isolated" and "flood-prone" island in the Bay of Bengal, Ismail Wolff, regional director of rights defender Fortify Rights, said: "Not one refugee should be moved until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine informed consent is assured."

The UN office in Bangladesh reiterated that a full-fledged investigation by international experts should be conducted over the feasibility of the island before the relocation.

Emphasizing access to education, healthcare and livelihood opportunities, the statement added: "Rohingya refugees must be able to make a free and informed decision about relocating to Bhasan Char based upon relevant, accurate and updated information."

In addition, dozens of other rights watchdogs including Amnesty International and the Rohingya diaspora across the globe have also urged Bangladesh not to start relocation until and unless a complete survey on the island is conducted under UN supervision.

Rohingya shifting to island dreaming of future

Jahid Hossain, one of the Rohingya who are among the first batch along with his five family members, told Anadolu Agency that he was going to the island for a "better life."

"I wish to return to my old job fishing after relocating to the island," Hossain said, adding his family would have a better house and place to live and sleep.

Another Rohingya, Noor Alam, from the Kutupalang camp, who has also accompanied the migration team with his four family members, told Anadolu Agency that he wanted to see his family in a "better environment."

Expressing hope to migrate to Bhasan Char with any next batch, Rohingya Majhee [camp leader] Ansar Ali told Anadolu Agency he believes that the Bangladeshi authorities will keep their commitment for providing better living conditions on the island.

Seeking anonymity, another Rohingya, however, said he would never shift to the risky and isolated island.

"Our main goal is to be repatriated to our land of origin in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Relocation to another remote island may delay our repatriation process."

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.

Bangladesh's assurance of better life

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said: "We are trying to relocate a part of them [Rohingya] for better living where they can enjoy economic activities, away from drug trafficking and other criminal offences."

Underling the vulnerable condition of Rohingya settlements in Cox's Bazar, he added: "It has become difficult for Bangladesh to accommodate so many people at a hilly place, and there is fear of mudslides during heavy rains."

Momen also assured of the safety and security of Rohingya in Bhasan Char and criticized the international agencies for their role against the relocation move.

"In fear of losing the luxurious life in Bhasan Char, I am reported that the staff of those international organizations are opposing the relocation process," Momen added.

Urging international agencies to work at Bhasan Char with less risk, he added, however: "International agencies charge additional hefty per day allowances in Cox's Bazar camps, as it is a 'risky and danger zone.' Plus, if they work one week, they take two weeks leave of absence. In Bhasan Char, they don't have to live in the danger zone."

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