Bangladesh sends 3rd group of Rohingya refugees to island

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Authorities in Bangladesh sent a third group of Rohingya refugees to a newly developed island in the Bay of Bengal on Friday despite calls by human rights groups for a halt to the process.

The government insists the relocation plan is meant to offer better living conditions while attempts to repatriate more than 1 million refugees to Myanmar would continue.

On Friday morning, 1,778 refugees started their journey to the island of Bhasan Char in four navy vessels from the southeastern port city of Chattogram, after they were brought from crammed camps in Cox’s Bazar district, said M. Mozammel Haque, a commander of the Bangladesh navy.

He said a fourth batch would be sent to the island Saturday.

“Around 4,000 refugees have already been sent to the island since December, but we have the capacity of accommodating 100,000. The process will continue until we fulfill it,” he told reporters.

Haque said the refugees were being treated well on the island and they would have the option of generating income by rearing cattle or poultry and could also engage in making handicrafts.

He said they wanted them to contribute to the economy, but their repatriation to Myanmar is the ultimate goal.

“They will be checked by our doctors when they arrive today. They will be given food and accommodation properly,” he said.

While human rights groups criticized the move, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina repeatedly said the refugees were moving to the island voluntarily under government management.

Authorities say the refugees were selected for relocation based on their willingness, and that no pressure was applied. But several human rights and activist groups say some refugees have been forced to go to the island, located 34 kilometers (21 miles) 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 1 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.

International aid agencies 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. But the government said the human rights groups and the U.N. should understand its good intentions.

The United Nations also voiced concern that refugees are 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.

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