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Rights groups urge Bangladesh to halt relocation of Rohingya

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Rohingya refugee women and children gather at the Palong Khali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on November 16, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

Human rights groups have urged Bangladesh to immediately stop its plan to relocate thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees to a remote, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.

There have been reports that the Dhaka government is planning to start the relocation of some 4,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bhasan Char next week in a bid to ease overcrowding in the refugee camps at the district of Cox’s Bazar, on the border with Myanmar.

“Bangladesh should halt this hasty relocation process,” Ismail Wolff, the regional director of Fortify Rights, said on Thursday. “Not one refugee should be moved until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine, informed consent is assured.”

In a separate statement on Thursday, Saad Hammadi, a South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International, said, “The authorities should immediately halt relocation of more refugees to Bhashan Char.”

“The relocation of so many Rohingya refugees to a remote island, which is still off limits to everyone, including rights groups and journalists, without prior permission, poses grave concerns about independent human rights monitoring,” Hammadi said.

He said Bangladesh had to first let the United Nations (UN) and humanitarian agencies carry out independent assessments of Bhashan Char’s habitability. The Amnesty official, too, said the “full and informed consent” of the refugees was necessary for any relocation.

A senior local official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that “many families” had been moved out of the camps in Cox’s Bazar as of Wednesday night, but declined to give a number.

Bangladeshi officials also said the first 400 of the 2,500 refugees would leave on Thursday evening.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladeshi government official in charge of refugees, said housing had been built for 100,000 people and authorities wanted to relocate them during the November to April dry season, when the sea is calm.

He also claimed the relocation was voluntary, and said the government had taken all measures to mitigate the impact of disasters on the island.

The UN has said that it has been given “limited information” about the relocations and has not been involved in preparations, stressing that “any relocations to Bhasan Char should be preceded by comprehensive technical protection assessments.”

The number of refugees in Cox’s Bazar has swelled since August 2017, when a state-sponsored crackdown in neighboring Myanmar prompted some 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. The country was already hosting some 200,000 Rohingya when the 2017 exodus began.

Since 2018, Bangladesh has been planning to relocate Rohingya to the desolate site.

But human rights groups have voiced concern about the plan because the island is remote and prone to devastation from cyclones.

In the past five decades, powerful cyclones have killed thousands of people in the Meghna River estuary, where the island is located.

More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after spending several months at sea while attempting to flee Bangladesh. Rights groups say they are being held against their will and have complained of human rights violations.

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