DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Seven Bangladesh navy ships carrying 1,804 Rohingya refugees arrived Tuesday at an isolated island where they will be relocated despite concerns among human rights groups about their safety.
They reached Bhashan Char island, 21 miles (34 kilometers) from the mainland, after a four-hour naval journey from the port city of Chittagong, government official Mohammed Khurshed Alam Khan said.
He said authorities at the island received 433 men, 523 women and 848 children. Authorities insist all were willing to be relocated and no pressure was placed on them. But several human rights and activist groups say some were forced to go.
It was the second group of Rohingya refugees transferred from crowded, squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar district to the island. Authorities sent a first group of 1,642 on Dec. 4 despite calls for a halt by human rights groups.
Rear Admiral Md Mozammel Haque, commander of the local navy, said the number of refugees willing to join the second phase of relocation “exceeded their expectations.”
He said the authorities were initially expecting to relocate around 1,200 refugees, but 1,804 chose to go.
The island surfaced only 20 years ago and was not previously inhabited. It was regularly submerged by monsoon rains but now has flood protection embankments, houses, hospitals and mosques built at a cost of more than $112 million by the Bangladesh navy.
The island’s facilities are designed to accommodate 100,000 people, just a fraction of the million Rohingya Muslims who fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
International aid agencies and the U.N. have opposed the relocation since it was first proposed in 2015, expressing fear that a big storm could wash over the island and endanger thousands of lives.
The United Nations also voiced concern that refugees be allowed to make a “free and informed decision” about whether to relocate. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged the government to cancel the plan.
An influential Cabinet minister and general secretary of the governing party, Obaidul Quader, said Monday that the Rohingya are being moved to the island because their repatriation to Myanmar has been delayed. He said refugees who were earlier taken to Bhashan Char have expressed satisfaction.
About 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh after August 2017, when Myanmar’s military began a harsh crackdown on the minority group following an attack by insurgents. Security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and burning thousands of homes.
Bangladesh has attempted to start sending refugees back to Myanmar under a bilateral agreement, but no one was willing to go.
The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in Myanmar, rendering them stateless, and face other state-sanctioned discrimination.