Bangladesh moving refugees to island

COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH (AFP) – Bangladesh began transferring hundreds of Rohingya refugees yesterday to a low-lying island in an area prone to cyclones and floods, with rights groups alleging people were being coerced into leaving.

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-eastern Bangladesh.

With many refusing to return, and with violent drug gangs and extremists active on the sites, the Bangladeshi government has grown increasingly impatient to clear out the camps.

Yesterday more than 20 buses carrying almost a thousand people left the camps in the Cox’s Bazar region, headed for the port city of Chittagong, said Regional Police Chief Anwar Hossain.

“Twenty buses left in two shifts. There were 423 people in the first 10 buses and 499 in the second 10 buses,” he told AFP.

Rohingya refugees are transported in a bus to Chittagong district from a refugee camp for the first mass relocation of refugees to an island in Ukhia. PHOTO: AFP

From Chittagong the refugees were due to be taken by military landing craft to the island of Bhashan Char, officials said.

The island, measuring 13,000 acres is one of several silty strips to have surfaced in the Bay of Bengal in recent decades.

The Bangladesh Navy has built shelters there for at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees as well as a nine-foot flood embankment.

But locals said high tides flooded the island a few years ago and that cyclones, a regular occurrence in the region, can cause storm surges of four or five metres.

Officials said they planned to transfer a total of 2,500 people in a first phase.

But rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International alleged that some of the refugees had been coerced into going.

This was borne out by some family members that AFP spoke to yesterday.

“They beat my son mercilessly and even smashed his teeth so that he agreed to go to the island,” said Sufia Khatun, 60, who came to see off her son and five other relatives.

“I have come here to see him and his family probably for the last time,” she told AFP in tears.

Hafez Ahmed, 17, came to say goodbye to his brother and his family.

“My brother has been missing for the last two days. We later learnt that he is now here (transit camp), from where he will be taken to the island. He is not going willingly,” Ahmed told AFP.