COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH (AFP) - Bangladesh has resumed moving Rohingya refugees to a remote and flood-prone island, authorities said Wednesday (Nov 24), despite criticism from aid groups and claims some are being relocated against their will.
Nearly 20,000 members of the stateless minority, who fled neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 after a brutal military crackdown, have already been sent to Bhashan Char island.
Bangladesh eventually wants to rehouse 100,000 of its approximately one million Rohingya refugees to the island, moving them from cramped relief camps on the mainland.
But hundreds already sent there have since been arrested in coastal towns after fleeing the island, and dozens died in August after a fishing boat carrying escapees capsized.
Another 2,000 Rohingya will nonetheless be transferred this week, the country's deputy refugee commissioner Moozzem Hossain told AFP, more than six months after the last group was sent there.
"Navy ships will bring them to the island on Thursday," he added.
The UN refugee agency signed a deal with Bangladesh authorities to provide help and protection to refugees on the island last month.
Mr Hossain told AFP that all relocations were completely voluntary, but several refugees said they were being forced to move there.
"We don't want to go to Bhashan Char," a Rohingya woman told AFP by phone, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
She said a Rohingya community leader in the camps had added her name to a list of people seeking to relocate without her consent.
"If I go to Bhashan Char, I will not be able to go back to Myanmar. I will not go," she added.
One Rohingya community leader, who also asked to remain anonymous, said Bangladeshi authorities had told him and his peers to each provide lists of at least five families to be relocated.
About 850,000 Rohingya are packed into camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Most fled a Myanmar military clampdown in 2017 that the UN says could be genocide.
Bangladesh has been praised for taking in the refugees who poured across the border but has had little success finding them permanent homes.
Bhashan Char is 60km from the Bangladesh mainland and lies at the heart of the Meghna estuary, an area prone to powerful cyclones that have killed around one million people in the last 50 years.
Human Rights Watch has urged Bangladesh to halt further relocations until it could guarantee freedom of movement for the refugees.
The watchdog said Tuesday that Rohingya leaders were being coerced into persuading camp residents to move to Bhashan Char, including by confiscating their identity documents.
"Bangladesh's October agreement with the UN doesn't provide a free ticket to forcibly relocate Rohingya refugees," said Mr Bill Frelick, HRW's refugee and migrant rights director.