Police escorted first of the refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Chittagong port and then on to Bhasan Char – a flood-prone Bay of Bengal island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago.
Bangladesh has begun transferring several hundred Rohingya refugees to what the UN and rights groups worry is a dangerous low-lying island prone to cyclones and floods.
Almost a million Rohingya – most of whom fled a military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 – live in a vast network of squalid camps in south-east Bangladesh.
With many of them refusing to return without guarantees for their safety and rights, and with violent drug gangs and militants active on the sites, the Bangladeshi government has grown increasingly impatient to clear out the camps.
On Thursday at least 10 buses left the camps in the Cox's Bazar region, headed for the port city of Chittagong, police said.
"Ten buses carrying some 400 have left for the island," local police chief Ahmed Sunjur Morshed told AFP.
From Chittagong the refugees were due to be taken by military landing craft to the island of Bhashan Char on Friday, officials said.
Earlier the officials told they planned to move around 2,500 people to the low-lying silt island in a first phase.
Scores of other buses were standing by at the camps in the Cox's Bazar region, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
But it was unclear if more people would board the buses, with rights groups alleging that some of the refugees had been coerced into volunteering to be transferred.
READ MORE: Three years after exodus, global neglect leaves Rohingya stranded in camps
Happening Now:#Rohingya relocation to Bhasan Char— Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) December 2, 2020
Buses leave Ukhiya transporting refugees on their way to Bhasan Char island. #Bangladesh pic.twitter.com/Pcnrc9jMgc
Flooding, regular cyclones
Bhashan Char, measuring 52 square kilometres, is one of several silty strips to have surfaced in the area in recent decades.
The Bangladesh Navy has built shelters there for at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees as well as a three-metre embankment to prevent flooding.
But locals say high tides flooded the island as recently as a few years ago and that cyclones, a regular occurrence in the region, can cause storm surges of four or five metres.
Rights groups urge Bangladesh not to ship Rohingya
Human rights groups urged Bangladesh on Thursday to stop its plan to ship thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island.
"The authorities should immediately halt relocation of more refugees to Bhashan Char," Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner Saad Hammadi said in a statement.
US-based advocacy group Refugees International said the plan was "short-sighted and inhumane", while the Fortify Rights Group said the relocations may be "coerced and involuntary" and should cease immediately.
“One #Rohingya refugee even said forced repatriation to Myanmar, where there is ongoing risk of genocide, would be preferred to the unknown & potential dangers of resettling to Bhasan Char.”— Refugees International (@RefugeesIntl) December 3, 2020
Bangladesh must halt plans to relocate the Rohingya. Read more:https://t.co/QLaFyNcMoA
“The authorities should immediately halt relocation of more refugees to Bhashan Char, return those on the island to their families and community in mainland Bangladesh, and follow due process before any relocation," said @saadhammadi https://t.co/F9dWtHUMvz— Amnesty International South Asia (@amnestysasia) December 3, 2020
'Safety, feasibility and sustainability' of the island
The United Nations office in Bangladesh issued a terse statement on Thursday saying it was "not involved" in the relocation process and had been given "limited information".
It said the UN had not been allowed to independently assess the "safety, feasibility and sustainability" of the island as a place to live.
It said the refugees "must be able to make a free and informed decision about relocating" and that, once there, they should have access to education and health care – and be able to leave if they wish.
Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the relocation was voluntary.
"They are going there happily. No one is forced. The government has taken all measures to deal with disasters, including their comfortable living and livelihood."
A senior foreign ministry official said the refugees were being moved because there was little prospect of repatriating them to Myanmar.
Omar Faruq, one Rohingya leader who had been on a government trip, said the island was "truly beautiful", with better facilities than in the refugee camps and that he would be ready to go, but that most people did not want to go there.
"We don’t want to end up living an isolated prison-like life," said Nurul Amin, one Rohingya refugee who was not on the list.
More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after several months at sea in an attempt to flee Bangladesh. Rights groups say they are being held against their will and have complained of human rights violations.
READ MORE: In pictures: Rohingya forced into child labour