The government yesterday began transferring Rohingyas to Bhasan Char from the congested camps in Ukhia and Teknaf where about a million of them have been living.
The process has begun as the UN and rights groups allege that they have limited information about what has been going on and that the government has yet to allow a technical team to assess the feasibility of the housing project in Bhasan Char, an island around 37 miles off the coast of Bay of Bengal under Hatiya upazila of Noakhali.
Officials and Rohingya leaders said around 600 families from the camps in Kutupalong and Teknaf were taken by buses to Ukhia Degree College, some 2 km away from the Kutupalong camp, on Wednesday night, under tight security by the Armed Police Battalion.
"We were provided breakfast and then lunch at the transit camp [Ukhia Degree College]. Then, about 40 Rohingyas got into each of the buses for Bhasan Char," Mizanur Rahman, a Rohingya community leader, told The Daily Star over the phone.
"No one has forced me to go to Bhasan Char. I am going voluntarily," he said.
An official involved in the relocation process told The Daily Star that the first convoy of 10 buses with Rohingyas left for Chattogram at 11:30am and the second convoy of another 10 buses left at 12:45pm. Later in the afternoon, 18 more buses left with some 500 other Rohingyas.
Lt Col Ashique Billah, director of the legal and media wing at Rab headquarters, said two battalions of Rab-7 and -15 have been deployed on the Cox's Bazar-Chattogram highway to ensure smooth relocation of Rohingyas to Bhasan Char.
Under heavy security, around 1,500 Rohingyas were taken to Chattogram by buses. From there, they were scheduled to be taken to Bhashan Char by 14 vessels. Noakhali Deputy Commissioner Khorshed Alam Khan said the Rohingyas are scheduled to arrive in Bhasan Char by 2:00pm today.
Officials said some 2,500 Rohingyas would be in the first batch.
An official concerned told our correspondent in Chattogram that the Rohingyas spent the night in the port city under the supervision of the Bangladesh Navy.
The Navy has prepared the Tk 3,100-crore housing project, funded with public money, after some 750,000 Rohingyas fled a brutal military campaign in Myanmar's Rakhine state and took shelter in Cox's Bazar in the months following August 2017. They joined some 300,000 other Rohingyas, who had fled previous waves of violence in Rakhine.
Violence between different groups of Rohingyas and drug trafficking has become a matter of concern, said a rights activist working on refugees. Destruction of forests and hills and risk of landslides in Cox's Bazar prompted the authorities to choose the temporary housing site at Bhasan Char.
UN and rights groups have been questioning the idea of relocation to Bhasan Char, saying it is a low-lying isolated island and has risks of flooding, but at a point last year agreed to send a technical team to assess the condition and requested the government to allow the visit before relocation.
In a statement on Wednesday, the UN said it has limited information on the relocation exercise and has not been involved in the preparation process. It said it is ready for the visit by a technical team and for consultation with the government. The UN also said any relocation should be voluntary and all protection measures must be in place.
Officials involved in preparing the housing project said it has 120 cluster villages that are capable of accommodating one lakh Rohingyas and there are livelihood options including fishing and livestock rearing.
The houses have been built four feet above the ground with concrete blocks. The entire housing site is protected by a 13km-long flood embankment. There are also 120 cyclone shelters, which are planned to be used as schools, medical centres and community centres.
The government arranged a "go and see" visit by a group of Rohingyas in September this year. The visitors later told journalists that the facilities there were far better than those at the camps, but they felt that they wouldn't be able to see many of their relatives after moving there.
Representatives from at least 22 local NGOs also visited Bhasan Char last week. They lauded the project, but added that they were unsure how the critically ill people could be treated there.
"The relocation of Rohingyas to Bhasan Char is happening on a voluntary basis," Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told The Daily Star yesterday, trashing the rights groups' statements that some of the Rohingyas were coerced into going there.
Responding to the UN statement, he said a technical team may visit Bhasan Char at any favourable time.
"They should first go to Rakhine and see how prepared it is for Rohingya repatriation," Momen said, expressing frustration over the fact that not a single Rohingya returned to Myanmar in over three years.
Rohingyas refused to return to Rakhine despite two attempts in the last three years, saying there were no guarantee of citizenship, safety and basic rights in Rakhine although Myanmar had signed a MoU with UNDP and UN Refugee Agency for creating conditions for repatriation.
Rights groups said the situation in Rakhine has not improved, rather deteriorated amid increasing conflicts between Arakan Army and Myanmar Army in recent months, though Myanmar faces a genocide case at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court has begun an investigation into the human rights violation of the Rohingyas.
Foreign Minister Momen said the actual pressure from the international community should be on Myanmar for creating conditions for repatriation, not on Bangladesh that has been bearing the brunt of the crisis for decades.
Rights activist Noor Khan Liton said, "Relocation to Bhasan Char without UN involvement brings the question: Who will feed them and manage them in Bhasan Char? Can the Bangladesh government alone do it? We don't have the answers."