Bangladesh Roundly Criticized as it Begins Moving Rohingya to Remote Island

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Bangladesh Roundly Criticized as it Begins Moving Rohingya to Remote Island Rohingya refugee Omor Hamza (center) cries as he says goodbye to his relatives before leaving Cox's Bazar for Bhashan Char Island, Dec. 3, 2020.

International criticism grew louder as Bangladesh began moving more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal on Thursday.

The government had said the move to Bhashan Char Island was voluntary and would ease crowding at camps housing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern district.

International humanitarian and rights organizations said no one should be relocated until United Nations experts certify that the remote island is habitable, and a mechanism is in place to ensure that refugees are accorded basic human rights.

“The Bangladesh government is actively reneging on its promise to the U.N. not to relocate any refugees to Bhashan Char island until humanitarian experts give a green light,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday.

“If the government were genuinely confident in the habitability of the island, they would be transparent and not hastily circumvent U.N. technical assessments.”

Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asian group, said Bangladesh had coerced the Rohingya into moving to Bhashan Char, an allegation that the government forcefully denied.

“All of them are going voluntarily. We will not force anyone to go to Bhashan Char,” A.K. Abdul Momen, the foreign minister, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Thursday.

The Rohingya have a right to consent, yes, but it should be informed consent and they didn’t have enough information, Amnesty International said on Thursday.

Momen said the Rohingya who agreed to move were fully apprised of the conditions on Bhashan Char.

“They can move freely at Bhashan Char. They can engage in farming, fish cultivation, cattle rearing and other agricultural activities, which are not possible in Ukhia and Teknaf,” Momen said, referring to the refugee camps in sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar.

“The Cox’s Bazar region has become an environmentally risky zone. Trees, hills, canals and natural resources are totally damaged due to the huge pressure of the Rohingya,” he added. “That is why we have taken the measure to decongest the camps in Ukhia and Teknaf, and relocate some 100,000 to Bhashan Char.”

Bangladesh houses some 1 million Rohingya, who fled from violence in neighboring Myanmar, in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar. Of those, more than 740,000 escaped a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, beginning in August 2017.

Anticipating that their repatriation to Myanmar would be a while coming, Bangladesh’s government ordered the navy to construct a refugee complex in Bhashan Char.

The refugee settlement was ready in 2018, but no Rohingya were moved to Bhashan Char amid controversy over whether it was habitable. 

The government had said it spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on the island. Authorities said the facilities on the island were better than in the refugee camps.

‘Let us go to Bhashan Char’

Buses carrying Rohingya families and government officials left Ukhia in Cox’s Bazar at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Mosharraf Hossain, an additional inspector general of the Armed Police Battalion, told BenarNews.

A total of 1,501 Rohingya were packed into 42 buses to be transported to the island, a government official who requested anonymity told BenarNews. The official was not authorized to talk to reporters.

The buses were plastered with stickers that said, “Let us go to Bhashan Char.” The government had organized trucks to carry the refugees’ meager belongings to the island.

“The first batch of Rohingya who voluntarily consented to shift to Bhashan Char started for Chittagong on Thursday,” Hossain said.

“In Chittagong, the Rohingya people will be handed over to the Bangladesh Navy officials on Friday morning. Then they will be taken to Bhashan Char by a Navy ship.”

The ship will likely reach Bhashan Char on Friday afternoon, Mohammed Khurshed Alam Khan, the deputy commissioner of Noakhali district, told BenarNews. The island is part of Noakhali.

Early on Thursday morning, relatives of the Rohingya who were leaving gathered in Ukhia to see their loved ones off.

Rahima Khatun had come to see off her son Omor Hamza and his family.

“I did not realize how painful it would be to say goodbye to my son. I do not know when I will see him again,” Khatun told BenarNews.

“I hope he will be happy in Bhashan Char.”

Mohammad Toyub, one of the Rohingya who was set to leave on Thursday, told BenarNews he was hopeful.

“We had been leading a miserable life at the camp. So, I have consented to go to Bhashan Char with my family members. But sometimes I feel a little bit scared,” Toyub said.

“I do not know what will happen. But I hope we will be able to build a better life there.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.


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