Several Rohingya refugees say they were coerced into relocating to a remote island settlement under a controversial plan by the Bangladeshi government to move 100,000 of the persecuted minority away from crowded camps.
Roughly one million Rohingya Muslims live as refugees in southern Bangladesh, having fled waves of violence at home in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The majority came in 2017, fleeing a Myanmar military campaign that rights groups and United Nations investigators have called genocide.
Bangladesh’s plan to move refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal called Bhasan Char about three hours away by boat has long provoked outrage from rights groups and Rohingya leaders. But the government pressed ahead this month, arguing it needs to ease chronic overcrowding in what is now the world’s largest refugee camp.
Last week, about 1,650 Rohingya were sent to the island in naval vessels. The government said it has moved only those willing to go, but mixed accounts have emerged.
Before leaving, three Rohingya refugees told Reuters they did not give their consent to take part. A 31-year-old man said that he fled after discovering that his family was on the list but he was still caught and taken to the island.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 12 families who did not volunteer but found their names on the list anyway.
“I don’t want to go to that island,” one man told the organization.
Those watching the transfers unfold worried they could be next.
A 50-year-old Rohingya man in the camp told VICE World News on the condition of anonymity that he would prefer returning to his home in Myanmar, and that being sent to the island would only make that more difficult.
“Going to Bhasan Char means our chances of repatriation will be grim,” he said.
Ongoing attempts to repatriate refugees to Myanmar have failed as Rohingya refuse to return without basic rights such as citizenship and freedom of movement.
Experts say Bhasan Char does little to help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as it leaves them more isolated, vulnerable to extreme weather events, and could spark a whole new crisis.
Mohammad Yassin, a 28-year-old Rohingya man living in the Bangladesh camps, told VICE World News that he was concerned about being sent to the island and having to stay safe during a cyclone or landslide.
“There is a space crunch here [at the camp] but at least we are on land,” he said.
Bangladesh started ramping up work on Bhasan Char around six months ago and has maintained that it is well-equipped with schools, electricity and water supply.
“We can easily withstand a cyclone,” Bangladesh Navy Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, director of the Bhasan Char project, told VICE World News. “We have witnessed three cyclones in the last two years. And all the shelters are built four meters above the ground level.”
Chowdury could not confirm a timeline for others who are still on the mainland.
Bangladesh has also pointed to a surge in crime and drug trafficking in the camps as another reason why it needs to move refugees. Turf wars to control a bustling trade in methamphetamine have led to shootouts, kidnappings and killings in the Cox’s Bazar district where the camps are based. In October this year, at least eight people were killed and 2,000 displaced in clashes.
But Saad Hammadi, South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International, told VICE World News that moving refugees is not an answer to the tensions.
“Relocating Rohingya refugees to a remote island does not guarantee that criminal gangs will cease to operate or end violence inside the camps,” he said.
In June, local media reported that more than 80 percent of Rohingya were unwilling to relocate to the island. But some have weighed their options and decided to participate in the move.
Two refugees now on the island told VICE World News that they came voluntarily and were happy with the facilities. “Everything necessary is available here,” said Monjur Alam, a Rohingya community leader, citing the “nice buildings.”
Shafiur Rahman, a documentary filmmaker working on Rohingya issues, said that any number of multiple factors including incentives, beatings, threats and extremely difficult living conditions in the camps, could compel refugees to relocate.
“Each household was given 5,000 taka ($59) per head,” Rahman said. “Some were given clothes. Some have been told of the possibility of getting a cow.”
The refugees on Bhasan Char that VICE World News spoke to confirmed they were given that amount of money.
Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury said he could not personally verify the claim.
Additional reporting by Shamsuddin Ilius.
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