Bangladesh began transferring hundreds of Rohingya refugees on Thursday to a low-lying island in an area prone to cyclones and floods, with rights groups alleging that people were being coerced into leaving.
Almost a million Rohingya — most of whom fled a military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 — live in a vast network of squalid camps in south-eastern Bangladesh. With many refusing to return, and with violent drug gangs and extremists active on the sites, the Bangladeshi government has grown increasingly impatient over clearing out the camps.
On Thursday, over 20 buses carrying almost a thousand peopleleft the camps in the Cox’s Bazar region, headed for the port city of Chittagong, said Anwar Hossain, regional police chief. “There were 423 people in the first 10 buses and 499 in the second 10 buses,” he said. Police said more buses would leave later on Thursday, with officials saying earlier they planned to transfer a total of 2,500 people in the first phase.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, alleged that some of the refugees had been coerced into going. “They beat my son mercilessly and even smashed his teeth so that he agreed to go to the island,” said Sufia Khatun, 60, who came to see off her son and five other relatives.
Minister refutes claim
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen called the rights groups’ claims “a damn lie”, and said the facilities on the island were “much better” than in the camps.
“Bangladesh government has decided to take around 23,000 families to Bhashan Char voluntarily,” he told AFP. “The current camps are very congested… They are going voluntarily.”