Bangladesh will move up to 3,000 more Rohingya Muslim refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal this week despite complaints by rights groups concerned about the island’s vulnerability to storms and flooding.
Bangladesh has relocated about 3,500 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar to Bhasan Char island since early December. They were previously sheltering in border camps where a million live in ramshackle huts perched on razed hillsides.
Bhasan Char emerged from the sea only two decades ago and is several hours by boat from the nearest port at Chittagong.
The Rohingya, a minority group who fled violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are not allowed to leave the island without government permission.
“Most probably, they will be taken to Chittagong tomorrow and the next day, they will be sent to Bhasan Char from there,” Navy Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
“Last time, we had preparations for 700 to 1,000 but finally more than 1,800 Rohingya moved there. People who moved earlier are calling their relatives and friends to go there. That’s why more people are going there.”
Bangladesh justifies the move to the island saying overcrowding in the camps in Cox’s Bazar is leading to crimes.
It also dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a two-metre (6.5 feet) embankment for 12km (7.5 miles) to protect the island along with housing for 100,000 people, as well as facilities such as cyclone centres and hospitals.
However, the move has attracted criticism from relief agencies that say they were not consulted on the transfers.
“The UN has previously shared terms of reference with the government for the technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char, though we have not yet been permitted to carry out these assessments,” the UN refugee agency said.
“We emphasize that all movements to Bhasan Char must be voluntary and based upon full information regarding the conditions of life on the island and the rights and services that refugees will be able to access there.”
The government says the relocation is voluntary but some refugees from the first group that went there in early December have spoken of being coerced.
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.