Bangladesh is taking a group of 47 Rohingya leaders to an island it has developed in the Bay of Bengal in a bid to win their approval for the planned relocation of 100,000 refugees to the controversial site, officials and Rohingya said Friday.
The group, representing 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, will be taken to the island this weekend if weather permits, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mahbub Alam Talukder told BenarNews.
“If all goes well, they will be taken there on Saturday,” Talukder said. Rohingya leaders said they expected to be back at the camps by Tuesday.
A naval official told BenarNews that Rohingya would be taken to Bhashan Char Island by members of the armed forces.
The outing was initially planned for early August but delayed due to bad weather, authorities said.
“After the inspection, the Rohingya leaders are expected to mobilize public opinion in favor of going to Bhasan Char,” Mohammad Hemayetul Islam, a police superintendent in charge of security at refugee camps, told BenarNews in late July.
International humanitarian organizations, including United Nations agencies, have questioned the suitability of the flood-prone islet for housing refugees. A human rights group alleged recently that some 300 Rohingya taken to the island in May were being detained there against their will.
A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dhaka said the agency had not been informed about the trip.
“We do not know anything about it. We have not had any discussions,” Mostafa Sajjad Hossain told BenarNews. UNHCR has not been given access to the Rohingya currently on Bhashan Char, and even their relatives have not been able to communicate with them, he said.
Officials said the Rohingya group would sail to Bhashan Char from Chittagong on Saturday. Some 47 Rohingya leaders chosen to participate began departing from their camps at midday Friday.
BenarNews witnessed members of the delegation boarding a minibus at the Nayapara refugee camp in Teknaf on Friday, escorted by soldiers.
“After reaching Kutupalong at 3 p.m., our health was checked. All of us were tested for coronavirus two days ago,” Mohammad Alam, president of the development committee of the Leda refugee camp at Teknaf, told BenarNews by phone.
Delegation members Mohammad Nur, Mohammad Kalam and Mostafa Kamal told BenarNews that they had been told they were scheduled to return to the camp on Tuesday.
Detained and threatened?
Citing fears of coronavirus contagion, Bangladesh towed two boats of Rohingya rescued from the Bay of Bengal in May to Bhashan Char. It was not immediately clear if the visitors would meet with the Rohingya already living on the island under the care of the Bangladesh navy.
“The 307 Rohingyas here are very well. They are eating and sleeping comfortably,” Navy Commodore A.A. Mamun Chowdhury, the officer in charge of development of the island, said Friday.
“They are yet to be handed over to the civil administration. We are taking care of them,” he said.
In early August, Bangkok-based rights group Fortify Rights said it had interviewed 15 of the refugees undergoing what it described as “unlawful mass arbitrary detention” on Bhashan Char.
The Rohingya were mostly confined indoors and threatened if they did not cooperate, Fortify said.
“The authorities came to us and tried to make videos of us and told us to say we feel good here. The authorities told us, ‘Say you feel good here and that you will stay here,’” Fortify Rights quoted a refugee as saying.
“I refused to make the video, and they said, ‘Why are you not making the video? We will not be challenged. If we kill you here, we will say you had coronavirus.’”
International agencies have raised dozens of issues that need addressing to make Bhashan Char safe for habitation, including protection from disasters including cyclones and tidal surges.
Bangladesh has spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on Bhashan Char. An additional $92 million was allocated in December 2019 for raising the height of the embankment, and to build an administrative building, a jetty, and residential facilities for U.N. officials, Enamur Rahman, the state minister for disaster management and relief, told BenarNews at the time.
Bangladesh authorities say the facilities are better than in refugee camps where more than 740,000 Rohingya who fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar three years ago have been living. They also claim no one will be sent to Bhashan Char against their will.
But to date, Rohingya refugees have not agreed to relocation, and the government has repeatedly postponed the move.
“If Bhashan Char is livable, then of course Rohingya will go there. After we see it with own eyes, we can convince others,” Mohammad Rafiq, a delegate from Lambashia refugee camp in Ukhia district, told BenarNews in July.
“After visiting the island, we can say whether it is livable or not,” Mohammad Alam, the Leda camp leader, said at the time.