More than 1,600 Rohingya refugees sailed on Friday from Bangladesh’s southern port of Chittagong for the remote island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, a naval official said, despite opposition from humanitarian groups against the move.
The South Asian nation says it is only moving refugees who are willing to go and that this will ease chronic overcrowding in camps that are home to more than one million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.
But refugees and humanitarian workers say some of the Rohingya had been coerced into going to Bhashan Char, a flood-prone island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago.
The naval official said the Rohingya were on board seven boats, with two more carrying supplies.
Pictures taken from one of the vessels showed refugees lined up on blue plastic chairs under the watch of uniformed sailors.
“The government is not taking anyone to Bhashan Char forcibly. We maintain this position,” Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told reporters late on Thursday.
“My family didn’t want to go, they are taking them by force if my family go there to the island they will die because of floods,” a woman told Al Jazeera.
Humanitarian and human rights groups have said 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.
“From what they told us the living conditions are good,” Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Cox’s Bazar, said.
“They have rooms that can accommodate up to four people, there are two hospitals, with 20-bed hospitals, there is a police station. ”
“But … they [told us] they don’t want to be there, they [want] to be near their homeland … and they have extended family all across the country, they can visit,” he added.
An 18-year-old woman said her husband had put their names on the list thinking it was for food rations. He fled when they were told to go to Bhasan Char, she said, adding that she is also hiding in the camp.
They were among more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in 2017 following a military-led crackdown that the UN said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies genocide and says its forces were targeting Rohingya rebels who attacked police posts.
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 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.
More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after several months at sea in an attempt to flee Bangladesh. Rights groups say they are being held against their will and have complained of human rights violations.
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”.