On Tuesday, four Bangladeshi naval vessels took the second and largest group of Rohingya Muslims so far from cramped refugee camps to an uncertain future on a gloomy island three hours from the mainland.
The government insisted that the 1,800 refugees, who have been in camps since fleeing a military base in Myanmar, want to start new lives on Bhashan Char, where 1,600 others arrived earlier this month.
But rights activists expressed new doubts about the transfers. They said that some Rohingya had their small homes in the camps on the border of Myanmar locked so that they had no choice.
The Bangladeshi government eventually wants to rebuild 100,000 of the camps’ approximately one million Rohingya on the island, which takes full force of cyclones that roar across the Bay of Bengal every year.
Rohingya carried bags of belongings, toys and chickens and took selfies with each other while sitting on wooden benches during the three-hour journey from Chittagong to Bhashan Char.
Housing blocks have been set up for the new arrivals on the island, which Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has called a “beautiful resort”.
More than 700,000 Rohingya joined 300,000 already in camps in Bangladesh in 2017 after a deadly purge of their villages in Myanmar that the UN has said could be genocide.
With Bangladesh now struggling to find a long-term solution to the Rohingya emigration, government refugee officials said there were better accommodation facilities and better security for the Rohingya in Bhashan Char.
“They are very anxious to go to Bhashan Char because they have heard from their relatives, those who have gone to Bhashan Char, that it is a great place,” Momen told AFP.
‘Peace of mind’
Some Rohingya in the latest group said they went willingly.
“The camp is a difficult and overcrowded place to live and move,” Shafi Alam told AFP on the naval ship.
Grandma Morium Khatun, 55, said she made the change to escape drug-related crime in camps where dozens have been killed in recent years.
“I’m looking for peace of mind. The refugee camp is not a place for that,” she said.
But an international rights worker who interviewed some Rohingya said they had no choice about the move.
“The home of some of the refugees is being locked up by volunteers working for Bangladesh’s camp authorities to force them to agree to the relocation,” the worker told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They are told that if they do not go, their homes will remain locked.”
“Claims from within the community about cash incentives offered to Rohingya families to move to Bhashan Char as well as the use of threatening tactics make the relocation process questionable,” said Amnesty International’s campaign in South Asia, Saad Hammadi.
A Rohingya journalist who took pictures of refugees boarding buses for the relocation was arrested on Monday, a local rights activist said. The police told AFP that they were not aware of an arrest.
After the first transfer on December 4, several Rohingya told AFP that they were beaten and threatened to agree to move.
The UN said it had not been involved in the process.