CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Bangladesh naval vessels carried about 1,600 Rohingya refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal on Friday despite complaints by refugees and rights groups that some were being coerced.
Bangladesh says it is only transferring people who are willing to go and the move will ease chronic overcrowding in camps that are home to more than 1 million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.
But refugees and humanitarian workers say some of the Rohingya had been coerced into going to the flood-prone island of Bhasan Char that only emerged from the sea 20 years ago.
Refugees were packed on plastic chairs across the decks of the naval vessels that set sail from the southern port of Chittagong. Some brought umbrellas to shelter from the sun on a journey that takes several hours.
Two refugees on board told Reuters by phone they had travelled willingly and were happy to be out of the camps.
“I hope we will find some comfort and peace here,” one 46-year-old man said after reaching the island. “There is so much suffering and conflict in the camps.”
In a statement on Friday, the foreign ministry said it planned to relocate 100,000 Rohingya because of “extreme congestion” and the “deteriorating security situation” in the camps.
It said the island has been equipped with “proper infrastructure and enhanced facilities” and it hoped the United Nations would soon be working there, alongside 22 aid groups who had agreed to help out.
All refugees went voluntarily, the ministry added.
“I WAS CAUGHT AND TAKEN”
The United Nations has said it has only received “limited information” about the move.
At a briefing in Geneva, the U.N’s refugee agency called on Bangladesh to uphold its commitment that the move be voluntary, saying it had heard reports refugees felt under pressure.
The UNHCR was ready to check conditions on the island to ensure it was a “safe and sustainable place for refugees to live”, if allowed by the government, spokesman Babar Baloch said.
On the mainland on Thursday, before the departure, two Rohingya told Reuters their names had appeared on lists compiled by government-appointed local leaders without their consent.
“They have taken us here forcefully,” a 31-year-old man told Reuters tearfully by phone as he boarded a bus that he said was taking him from the camps near Cox’s Bazar to Chittagong.
“Three days ago, when I heard that my family is on the list, I ran away from the block, but yesterday I was caught and taken here,” he said.
An 18-year-old woman said her husband had put their names on the list thinking it was for food rations. He fled when they were told to go to Bhasan Char, she said, adding that she was also hiding in the camp.
They were among more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in 2017 following a military-led crackdown that the United Nations said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies genocide and says its forces were targeting Rohingya militants who attacked police posts.
“Not one refugee should be moved until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine informed consent is assured,” said Ismail Wolff, director of the Fortify Rights group.
Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed 12 families whose names were on the lists, but had not volunteered to go.
Two aid workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said refugees had come under pressure from government officials who used threats and offers of cash and other enticements to persuade them to go to the island.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ponir Hussain in Chittagong and Ruma Paul in Dhaka, additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Matthew Tostevin and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Heavens)