Amid lingering doubts among Rohingya, int’l groups, Dhaka says 1st batch being moved after October agreement with UN.
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) – Despite persisting concerns for their well-being, Bangladesh on Wednesday started moving 1,500 more Rohingya refugees to the remote Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal, the first batch to be relocated since April.
The group is also the first to be transferred from the Cox’s Bazar camps after the UN signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Bangladesh in October for humanitarian and other essential services on the island.
International groups and the Rohingya themselves have repeatedly opposed the plan to shift refugees to the island, which is located some 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the country’s southwestern coast, completely cut off from the mainland and at high risk of natural disasters.
However, Bangladesh pushed forward with the controversial idea and has already shifted nearly 20,000 Rohingya – of the more than 1.2 million who took refuge in the country after fleeing a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar – to Bhasan Char since last December.
They were taken in six batches – two in December and one each in January, February, March and April – before the process was halted amid growing global concern over reports of Rohingya being coerced to move.
Mohammad Shamsud Douza, a senior official of Bangladesh’s Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, maintained that the latest group being moved only has people who “agreed to be relocated” to Bhasan Char.
“We are only moving forward with the process after getting consent from the Rohingya. Only those who agreed to be relocated have been listed,” he told reporters.
Douza’s claim was, however, partially contested by a Rohingya community leader, who explained that he has laid out certain conditions for the move.
“For now, I am going without my wife and seven children. If I find everything to be okay there, I will come back to take them with me. Otherwise, I have told the Bangladeshi authorities that I will return to Cox’s Bazar,” the Rohingya leader, who requested anonymity, told Anadolu Agency.
– Forced or not?
While Bangladeshi officials hailed the resumption of transfers to Bhasan Char as a positive outcome of the UN agreement, global rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the MoU should not be used as “a free ticket to forcibly relocate Rohingya refugees.”
“Bangladesh authorities should halt relocations to Bhasan Char island until freedom of movement and other rights of Rohingya refugees are protected,” HRW said in a statement issued less than 24 hours before the latest group of refugees was moved out of Cox’s Bazar.
It said the “relocations would contravene” the MoU as the Bangladeshi government still needs to “ensure that the UN refugee agency can fully support and protect Rohingya refugees living on Bhasan Char.”
“Many refugees were transferred to the island without full, informed consent, and have been prevented from returning to the mainland,” read the statement, adding that Bangladeshi officials and security agencies “are coercing Rohingya community leaders … to persuade other refugees to relocate, including by confiscating their identity documents.”
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have also fled from Bhasan Char throughout the year, risking their lives in perilous journeys that have ended in fatal disasters on occasion.
Some 50 Rohingya escaped the island in August and their boat capsized in the Bay of Bengal, killing at least nine.
According to government records cited by a Bangladeshi official last month, some 1,000 Rohingya have tried to flee from Bhasan Char and authorities managed to catch around 300.
Douza, who is Bangladesh’s additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, refuted the assertions made by HRW in its latest statement.
“We have never compelled any Rohingya to migrate to Bhasan Char. The allegations are baseless. No official has intimidated any Rohingya to relocate to Bhasan Char,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“Our main goal is to ensure the safe and dignified return of Rohingya to Myanmar, and we are doing everything we can to keep them safe here temporarily.”