Rohingya ‘distressed’ and ‘pressured’ into island move, UN says

The world body says the refugees’ new island home has not been properly checked for safety

The United Nations has warned that Rohingya refugees are “distressed” by their relocation from camps on the Bangladesh mainland to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal and may have been “pressured” to move there by the government.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Friday urged the Bangladeshi government not to move refugees against their will and warned that the destination island, Bhashan Char, may not be a safe home for the minority group.

Authorities in Bangladesh on Friday began sending the first batch of 1,642 refugees aboard seven Bangladeshi naval vessels from the Port of Chittagong to the isolated island, which is often battered by monsoon winds and rain.

“We have heard some reports from the camps that some refugees may be feeling pressured into relocating to the island of Bhashan Char, who may have changed their initial views about relocation and no longer wish to move,” Mr Dujarric told reporters in New York.

“If so, they should be allowed to remain in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. We have also seen troubling images of some distressed refugees shared during [the] relocation process. We have shared those concerns with the authorities in Bangladesh.”

He added that the UN was not involved in the relocation and said it would not play a role until the newly built communities on the flood-prone island had been checked for dangers.

“A comprehensive technical and protection assessment to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhashan Char should take place before any relocation,” said Mr Dujarric.

Almost a million Rohingya — most of whom fled a military offensive and human rights abuses in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 — live in a vast network of squalid camps in south-eastern Bangladesh.

Camps for Rohingya refugees near the town of Cox's Bazar are overcrowded and unhygienic. Disease and organised crime are rampant. Access to education is limited and residents are not allowed to work.

A government-led plan to relocate refugees to Bhashan Char was proposed in 2015, but it has been opposed by aid agencies, human rights groups and the UN, for fear of a storm overwhelming the island and risking thousands of lives.

The island was once regularly submerged by monsoon rains but now has flood protection embankments, hospitals, mosques and homes for 100,000 people built at a cost of more than $112 million by the Bangladesh navy.

Situated 34 kilometres off the coast of Bangladesh, the island surfaced only 20 years ago and has never been inhabited.

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