Four Bangladesh navy ships carrying at least 1,800 Rohingya refugees on Tuesday left the Chattogram port for Bhashan Char island in the Bay of Bengal, amid concerns many of the persecuted refugees were coerced into relocating to the flood-prone island.
The Rohingya refugees, who have been sheltered in camps in Cox’s Bazar since fleeing the 2017 Myanmar military clampdown, were taken to Chattogram in buses on Monday.
Navy Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury said at least 1,804 Rohingya were being moved in ships to Bhasan Char. “We are ready to receive the new arrivals,” he said by telephone from the island.
The Rohingya carried bags of belongings, toys and chickens and took selfies with each other as they sat on wooden benches during the three hour trip from Chattogram to Bhashan Char.
The government insisted that the persecuted refugees want to start new lives on Bhashan Char, where 1,600 others arrived earlier this month. The South Asian nation eventually wants to relocate 100,000 Rohingya to the remote island in a move to decongest the refugee camps which shelter approximately one million Rohingya.
Housing blocks have been set up for the new arrivals on the island that Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has called a “beautiful resort”. On Monday, he had put the number of refugees being moved to Bhashan Char at little less than 1,000.
But rights activists expressed new doubts about the transfers, saying some Rohingya had found their shanty homes in the camps padlocked so they had no choice but to go.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury said international journalists were not allowed to go to the island.
“The naval commander in charge said there will be a next batch of refugees but we don’t know exactly when,” he said, speaking from Chittagong [Chattogram] in the country’s south-facing Bay of Bengal.
To decongest the camp area
It took barely an hour to move [about] 1,800 Rohingya refugees in several navy vessels to head towards Bhasan Char, which is 42km from Chittagong [Chattogram], he said.
“The government for its part is saying it needs to decongest the camp area as well as criminal drug dealing, and they are under intense public pressure to resolve the Rohingya crisis,” Chowdhury said.
Chowdhury said he spoke to some of the Rohingya via phone already in Bhasan Char and they told him they are happy with the accommodation.
“It’s a bit isolated,” Chowdhury said, but added that on the mainland, the refugees had been confined to the camps and had little freedom of movement.
The UN said it has not been involved in the process while rights organisations say the government used “cash incentives” as well as “intimidation tactics” to force Rohingya to accept the relocation offer.
But in October, some Rohingya told Al Jazeera they were abused after they went on a hunger strike against what they called their forced relocation to the uninhabited island. In May, Dhaka quarantined nearly 300 Rohingya to Bhashan Char – a muddy silt islet in the cyclone-prone coastal belt, after the refugees were rescued from a stranded boat.
But Bangladesh foreign minister said the refugees are going “voluntarily”.
Trying a new life on the island
The United Nations and rights groups have condemned the relocation to the island, which is prone to cyclones and flooding.
The UN says has not been allowed to carry out a technical and safety assessment of Bhashan Char and was not involved in the transfer of refugees there.
Refugees and humanitarian workers say some of the Rohingya were coerced into going to the island, which emerged from the sea only 20 years ago.
More than 700,000 Rohingya took shelter in the camps in Bangladesh in 2017 after a deadly clampdown by Myanmar’s military that the UN has said could be genocide.
Several attempts at repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar have failed after the refugees said they were too fearful of further violence to return.
“Today we had a chance to speak with some of the refugees who are heading [to the island] in a vessel, in presence of government officials,” Chowdhury said.
“Most of them said they volunteered – they’re going there on their own will with their families because they are tired of the congested life and don’t see any future of repatriation. They said everything looks uncertain so they are willing to try a new life on the island.”