DHAKA: Almost 1,800 Rohingya refugees were relocated to a remote island in Bangladesh on Friday, despite UN concerns about how safe and voluntary the move is.
The Bangladeshi navy relocated the group from camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, which is in the Bay of Bengal and 30 kilometers from the mainland.
Bangladesh says it has built housing units and infrastructure on Bhasan Char for 100,000 refugees to take the pressure off Cox’s Bazar, which already hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State during a military crackdown in 2017.
Two similar relocation efforts took more than 3,440 Rohingya Muslims to the island in December. But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is concerned about the island’s vulnerability to severe weather and flooding.
“A total of 1,776 Rohingyas have been relocated to Bhasan Char,” Rear Admiral Mozammel Haque, Chattogram area commander of the navy, told Arab News. “They were brought to Chattogram from the Cox’s Bazar camp on Thursday and stayed here in the transit camp for one night. At around 9:45 a.m., four ships carrying the Rohingyas started sailing toward the island,” he said, adding that another group of 1,500 refugees would be transported to Bhasan Char on Saturday.
The UNHCR has been voicing its concerns about whether the relocation is not only safe, but voluntary.
“We are aware of reports that the government of Bangladesh may soon relocate another group of refugees to Bhasan Char,” Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, UNHCR spokesman in Dhaka, told Arab News. “The UN has not been part of this process.”
He said the UN had asked to conduct an assessment on the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char, but that the agency had still not received government permission to carry out the evaluation.
“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,” Hossain added.
Authorities said the Rohingya were happy to start their new lives on the island.
According to Haque, those who left for Bhasan Char on Friday seemed “very excited for having the new home.”
“It was like a picnic to them,” he added. “The newly arrived Rohingyas have already received the keys for their homes in the island. We will provide them with cooked food for the next three days and after that all the families will begin cooking at their home since every family is provided with a cylinder gas stove.”
The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), the government body overseeing the wellbeing of Rohingyas at Cox’s Bazar, said refugees had shared their good experiences from the island with others.
“Rohingyas who are already in Bhasan Char have shared their good experiences over living conditions in the island with their relatives at Cox’s Bazar refugee camp,” RRRC additional commissioner Mohammad Shamsuddouza told Arab News. “It inspired the new batches to come up for the relocation and we organized the relocation accordingly,” he said, adding that everything was on a voluntary basis. “With their personal belongings many of them carried chicken and goats to travel with the ship since there are huge scopes of livelihood in the island.”
Some 30 local aid agencies are supporting the refugees on the island.
Dr. Mohammad Arfin Rahman, a medical officer at the NGO Gonoshasthaya Kendra, told Arab News that advanced medical facilities should reach Bhasan Char soon, while a 20-bed government-run health complex was currently available to them on the island.