Rights activists have expressed doubts about the willingness of the transferees, accusing officials of padlocking Rohingya homes in camps on the Myanmar border.

Rohingya refugees travel in a naval ship to be transported to an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal, in Chittagong, Bangladesh, December 29, 2020.
Rohingya refugees travel in a naval ship to be transported to an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal, in Chittagong, Bangladesh, December 29, 2020. (AP)

Five Bangladesh navy ships carrying more than 1,700 Rohingya refugees have left the southeastern port city of Chittagong for the isolated Bhasan Char island, where they will be relocated despite concerns among human rights groups about their safety.

The refugees were expected to reach Bhashan Char island after a three-hour naval journey, a government official involved with the process said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, said the refugees were taken to Chittagong from their camps in Cox’s Bazar by buses on Monday and stayed overnight in a temporary camp.

Authorities insist the refugees were selected for relocation based on their willingness, and that no pressure was applied on them. But several human rights and activist groups say some were forced to go to the island, located 21 miles (34 kilometers) from the mainland.

The island surfaced only 20 years ago and was not previously inhabited. It was regularly submerged by monsoon rains but now has flood protection embankments, houses, hospitals and mosques built at a cost of more than $112 million by the Bangladesh navy.

The island’s facilities are designed to accommodate 100,000 people, just a fraction of the million Rohingya Muslims who fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently living in crowded, squalid refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district.

The Rohingya carried bags of belongings, toys and chickens and took selfies with each other as they sat on wooden benches during the three hour trip from Chittagong to Bhashan Char.

Housing blocks have been set up for the new arrivals on the island that foreign minister AK Abdul Momen has called a "beautiful resort".

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International community voices concern

Authorities sent a first group of 1,642 Rohingya to the island on December 4 despite calls for a halt by human rights groups.

International aid agencies and the United Nations have opposed the relocation since it was first proposed in 2015, expressing fear that a big storm could overwhelm the island and endanger thousands of lives.

The UN also voiced concern that refugees be allowed to make a “free and informed decision” about whether to relocate. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged the government to cancel the plan.

An influential Cabinet minister and general secretary of the governing party, Obaidul Quader, said Monday that the Rohingya are being moved to the island because their repatriation to Myanmar has been delayed. He said refugees who were earlier taken to Bhashan Char have expressed satisfaction.

About 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh after August 2017, when Myanmar’s military began a harsh crackdown on the minority group following an attack by insurgents. Security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and burning thousands of homes.

Bangladesh has attempted to start sending refugees back to Myanmar under a bilateral agreement, but no one was willing to go.

The Rohingya are not recognised as citizens in Myanmar, rendering them stateless, and face other state-sanctioned discrimination.

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'Peace of mind'

Some Rohingya in the latest group said they were going willingly.

"The camp is a difficult and overcrowded place to live and move around," Shafi Alam told AFP on the navy ship.

Grandmother Morium Khatun, 55, said she was making the change to escape drug-related crime in the camps that has seen dozens killed in recent years.

"I am 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 homes of some of the refugees were padlocked by volunteers working for the Bangladesh 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 don't go, their homes will remain padlocked."

"Allegations from within the community about cash incentives being offered to Rohingya families to relocate to Bhashan Char as well as use of intimidation tactics are making the relocation process questionable," said Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner Saad Hammadi.

A Rohingya journalist who took photos of refugees boarding buses for the relocation was detained on Monday, a local rights activist said.

Police told AFP they were not aware of an arrest.

After the first transfer on December 4, several Rohingya told AFP that they were beaten and intimidated to agree to move.

The UN said it has not been involved in the process.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies