Bangladesh has resumed moving Rohingya refugees to a remote and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, despite criticism from human rights and aid groups who claim some have been relocated against their will.
Deputy refugee commissioner Moozzem Hossain on Wednesday said 2,000 additional people will be transferred this week to Bhashan Char island, where Bangladesh eventually wants to rehouse 100,000 of its approximately one million Rohingya refugees.
“Navy ships will bring them to the island on Thursday,” Hossain told the AFP news agency.
About 850,000 of the mainly Muslim Rohingya minority are packed into camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, most of whom fled a Myanmar military clampdown in 2017 that the United Nations says could amount to genocide.
Bangladesh has been praised for taking in the refugees who poured across the border but has had little success finding them permanent homes.
Among the more than 19,000 Rohingya refugees who have already been relocated to Bhashan Char, hundreds have been arrested in coastal towns after fleeing the island. At least 11 people died in August after a fishing boat carrying escapees capsized.
Bhashan Char, located some 60 km (37 miles) from the Bangladesh mainland, lies at the heart of an area prone to powerful cyclones that have killed approximately one million people in the last 50 years.
The government delayed earlier this year the relocation of more refugees to the island as it was putting the finishing touches on a storm wall around its 53sq km (20sq mile) perimeter.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, signed a deal with Bangladesh authorities to provide help and protection to refugees on the island last month.
Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch’s refugee and migrant rights director, said that the agreement with the UNHCR “doesn’t provide a free ticket to forcibly relocate Rohingya refugees”.
Bangladesh claims all relocations are completely voluntary but several refugees said they were being forced to move there.
A Rohingya community leader, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Bangladeshi authorities had told him and his peers to each provide a list of at least five families to be relocated.
A Rohingya woman said her name had been added to the list without her consent and she did not wish to relocate to the island.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said Rohingya leaders were being coerced into persuading camp residents to move to Bhashan Char, including by confiscating their identity documents.
The watchdog has urged Bangladesh to halt further relocations until it could guarantee freedom of movement for the refugees.
Alexander Matheou, the Asia-Pacific director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said authorities are exploring options to allow people to travel to the mainland for limited periods but that “serious problems” remain.
Matheou, who visited the site on Tuesday, told the Reuters news agency in a phone call that the island was “well-designed and organised in terms of housing” and had access to clean water but that health services were “too basic to cope with a large population” and there was no established system of referrals to the mainland.
Refugees he spoke to voiced their preoccupation about not being able to move back and forth to the mainland to see their families.
“That is really, really upsetting people,” Matheou said, adding that the lack of freedom of movement will “undermine the success of the project” unless it is addressed.