Authorities in Bangladesh have sent a third group of Rohingya refugees to a newly developed island in the Bay of Bengal despite calls by human rights groups for a halt to the process.
On Friday morning, 1,778 refugees started their journey to the island of Bhasan Char in four navy vessels from the southeastern port city of Chattogram, after they were brought from crammed camps in Cox’s Bazar district, said M Mozammel Haque, a commander of the Bangladesh navy.
He said a fourth batch would be sent to the island, located 34km (21 miles) from the mainland, on Saturday.
“Around 4,000 refugees have already been sent to the island since December, but we have the capacity of accommodating 100,000. The process will continue until we fulfil it,” he told reporters.
The government insists the relocation plan is meant to offer better living conditions while attempts to repatriate more than one million refugees to Myanmar would continue.
Haque said the refugees were being treated well on the island and they would have the option of generating income by rearing cattle or poultry and could also engage in making handicrafts.
He said they wanted them to contribute to the economy, but their repatriation to Myanmar is the ultimate goal.
“They will be checked by our doctors when they arrive today. They will be given food and accommodation properly,” he said.
Several human rights and activist groups say some refugees have been forced to go to the island.
But the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly said the refugees were moving voluntarily.
The island surfaced only 20 years ago and was not previously inhabited. It was regularly submerged by monsoon rains but now has flood protection embankments, houses, hospitals and mosques built at a cost of more than $112m by the Bangladesh navy.
The island’s facilities are designed to accommodate 100,000 people, just a fraction of a million Rohingya who fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently living in crowded, squalid refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Authorities say the refugees were selected for relocation based on their willingness, and that no pressure was applied.
But international aid agencies have opposed the relocation since it was first proposed in 2015, expressing fear that a big storm could overwhelm the island and endanger thousands of lives.
The United Nations voiced concern that refugees are allowed to make a “free and informed decision” about whether to relocate. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also urged the government to cancel the plan.
But the government said the human rights groups and the UN should understand its good intentions.