Authorities in Bangladesh have begun relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees to an isolated island despite calls by human rights groups for a halt to the process, officials said on Thursday.
Police escorted the refugees in 11 buses from Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar for the journey to Chittagong port and then on to Bhasan Char – a flood-prone island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago.
“Bangladesh should halt this hasty relocation process,” said Ismail Wolff, regional director of Fortify Rights.
“Not one refugee should be moved until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine informed consent is assured.”
Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed 12 families whose names were on the lists, but had not volunteered to go, while Refugees International said the move was “nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people in violation of international human rights obligations”.
Two aid workers, who spoke to Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said refugees had come under pressure from government officials who used threats and offers of cash and other enticements to persuade them to go to the island.
Bangladesh says transporting refugees to Bhasan Char – a Bay of Bengal island hours from the mainland by boat – will ease chronic overcrowding in its camps at Cox’s Bazar, which are home to more than one million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Shamim Ahmad, press minister for the Bangladesh Embassy to the United States, said the government had built embankments to protect against storm surges, along with cyclone shelters, hospitals and schools.
He added Bangladesh “is working hard” to provide better living conditions for Rohingya refugees while their repatriation is negotiated with Myanmar, calling Bhasan Char “part of a secure, voluntary and temporary solution in the meantime”.
But humanitarian and human rights groups say the island is flood-prone and vulnerable to frequent cyclones, while the government has not allowed the United Nations to carry out a safety assessment.
“The authorities should immediately halt relocation of more refugees to Bhashan Char,” Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner, said in a statement.
“The relocation of so many Rohingya refugees to a remote island, which is still off limits to everyone including rights groups and journalists without prior permission, poses grave concerns about independent human rights monitoring,” he added.
A senior local official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency in a message that “many families” had been moved out of the camps as of Wednesday night, but declined to state a number.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 following a military-led crackdown that the UN has said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies it carried out genocide and says its forces were taking aim at Rohingya rebels who attacked police posts.
A briefing note by an international humanitarian organisation seen by Reuters said hundreds of refugees identified by officials as willing to go to the island were taken to a transit centre on Wednesday, with some offered incentives including cash payments.
Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said housing had been built for 100,000 people and authorities want to relocate them during the November to April dry season when the sea is calm.
“We will not force anyone to go there,” he said by phone, but did not comment on whether incentives had been offered.
The UN said in a statement it had been given “limited information” about the relocations and was not involved in preparations.
Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman, told Reuters the government had not given the UN permission to carry out technical assessments or to visit refugees already held there.
The UN in a statement has said: “[Any] relocations to Bhasan Char should be preceded by comprehensive technical protection assessments.”
Omar Faruq, one Rohingya leader who had been on a government trip, said the island was “truly beautiful”, with better facilities than in the refugee camps and that he would be ready to go, but that most people did not want to go there.
“We don’t want to end up living an isolated prison-like life,” said Nurul Amin, one Rohingya refugee who was not on the list.
Held against their will
More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after an attempt to flee Bangladesh for Malaysia by boat failed and they were stranded at sea for months.
They have said they were being held against their will and complained of human rights violations, some resorting to hunger strikes, according to human rights groups.
Several Rohingya, who did not want to be named, had told Al Jazeera in October that men, women and even children were “beaten with sticks” by Bangladeshi naval officers after they went on a four-day hunger strike last month.
In September, five rights organisations sent a letter to Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen requesting access to the island.
“Rohingya in the camps in Cox’s Bazar face many issues and problems, and the camps are overcrowded and imperfect, but moving people to an isolated island where they have no protection or support from international humanitarian agencies or freedom of movement is not the answer,” said Wolff from Fortify Rights.
“At present, it’s an island detention centre.”