Dhaka, Dec 4 (efe-epa).- Bangladesh on Friday shipped more than 1,600 Rohingya refugees to a settlement on a previously uninhabited remote island in the Bay of Bengal amid safety concerns raised by global humanitarian groups.
Additional commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation Shamsuddoha told EEF that a total of 1,642 refugees left port city Chittagong in naval ships for the Bhasan Char island in the morning.
The refugees arrived on the island around 2 pm local time, according to Bangladesh Navy Commodore Mamun Chowdhury, who is also Project Director at Bhasan Char.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Tohidul Islam said the government had decided to relocate 100,000 Rohingyas to Bhashan Char in different phases.
“The relocation has become imperative to de-congest the over-crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar that have temporarily been accommodating nearly a million of Rohingyas with many more thousands born each year,” Islam said in a statement.
He said the government had invested more than $350 million to develop the island with “all modern amenities, year-round fresh water, beautiful lake and proper infrastructure and enhanced facilities.”
These, he said, include uninterrupted electricity and water supply, agricultural plots, cyclone shelters, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police stations, recreation, and learning centers.
He said more than 1600 Rohingya refugees relocated in the first phase had “expressed their willingness voluntarily for relocation” to the island, connected with the mainland through waterways.
Before they departed for Bhasan Char, Hamid, a Rohingya community leader, who did not give his second name, told private TV Channel -71 that he was leading a group of 300 refugees from the Kutupalang camp to the island.
“We are going willingly because we are concerned about our security in the camp,” he said, in an apparent reference to the recent violence in Rohingya camps that left at least eight refugees dead.
“We think we can get better life there,” he said.
Human Rights Watch, however, in a statement on Thursday said it recently spoke with 12 families who said their names were on the list, but that they had not willingly volunteered to relocate.
Some refugees on the list have fled out of fear of forced relocation, it said.
HRW and other international rights groups had urged the Bangladesh authorities to halt the relocation.
“The Bangladesh government should commit to a transparent relocation process, fully informed consent of transferred refugees and freedom of movement on and off the island, and heed the United Nations’ call for a prior independent technical and protection assessment,” HRW said.
Bangladesh first announced in 2017 its plan to relocate Rohingyas to the 40-sq km island located in the Bay of Bengal, prone to cyclones and floods.
The government undertook a project in November 2017 to develop the island under the responsibility of its navy and claimed to have built 1,440 housing structures, which can shelter some 100,000 people.
But the authorities put the plan on hold after the UN expressed its doubts over living conditions on the remote island.
The Bangladesh government has said any relocation would be voluntary.
The United Nations, in a statement on Wednesday, said it was not involved in preparations for the movement or the identification of refugees and had limited information on the overall relocation exercise.