Bangladesh . Bangladesh transported more than 1,600 Rohingya refugees to a low-lying island Friday, in the first phase of a controversial planned relocation of 100,000 people. Almost a million Rohingya — most of whom fled a military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 — live in squalid camps in south-eastern Bangladesh. Any return to Myanmar appears unlikely for now.
Dhaka wants to move 100,000 of the refugees to Bhashan Char, a silt island that critics say is prone to flooding and in the path of cyclones that frequently wreak havoc in the region. Rights groups have alleged that many of those sent in the first wave on Friday were coerced into going.
This was borne out by some family members that AFP spoke to at camps in the Cox’s Bazar district on Thursday. They had come to say goodbye to their relatives, who were being bussed to the port of Chittagong ahead of the final boat journey on Friday. “They beat my son mercilessly and even smashed his teeth so that he agreed to go to the island,” said Sufia Khatun, 60, who came to see off her son and five other relatives.
But Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen called the claims “a damn lie”, and said the facilities on the island were “much better” than in the camps. Bangladesh has spent some $400 million from its own coffers building shelters and a nine-foot (three-metre) flood embankment around the facilities.
Those taken there will be allocated rooms and given household equipment to cook on their own, allowing them to start a new life, officials say. Bangladeshi authorities say the relocation will ease congestion in the vast network of camps where deadly landslides — as well as violence by drug gangs and extremists — are common.
But it is unclear what health care or educational facilities there will be on the island — or whether the refugees will be able to leave if they wish to. The United Nations office in Bangladesh said it had been prevented from independently assessing the “safety, feasibility and sustainability” of the island as a place to live.
Security was tightened on the island on Friday. A police station was created and nearly 300 police — including women officers — were deployed there, police official Golam Faruq told AFP. Shamsud Douza, a Bangladeshi refugees official accompanying the Rohingya, told AFP that the vessels arrived at the island at around 2:00 pm (0800 GMT).
Mohammad Jubaer, 28, who was on one of the ships with three family members, said he was happy to go to the island. “I was a labourer working for the IOM (International Organization for Migration) in the camps. I hope there will be enough work for me in the island. I wish they would also bring my brother and his family to the island,” he told AFP by phone.