Bangladesh sends more Rohingya refugees to remote, flood-prone island

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees sit on wooden benches of a navy vessel on their way to the Bhasan Char island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh, December 29, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh moved another group of Rohingya Muslims on Friday to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, despite concerns over the risk of storms and floods lashing the site, even as some refugees despaired of finding solutions to their plight.

The densely-populated south Asian country wants to transfer to the island a tenth of the 1 million refugees living in ramshackle border camps after they fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar.

"What options do we have? How long can we live in the crowded camps under tarpaulins?" asked Mohammed Ibrahim, 25, as he sailed to the island of Bhasan Char, to which some of his relatives have also been moved.

"This is going nowhere, the way the international community is handling our crisis," he told Reuters by mobile telephone, referring to floundering efforts to return the refugees to their homeland.

The Rohingya are a minority group, most of whom are denied citizenship by Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots back for generations in the western state of Rakhine.

Five ships moved 1,776 Rohingya and their belongings, with more set to be moved on Saturday for a two-day total of more than 3,000, said Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, the officer in charge of the island.

"We are receiving them," he told Reuters by telephone. "So far, so good."

They will join the roughly 3,500 Rohingya sent there since early December, making a journey of several hours from the southern port of Chittagong.

Rohingya living on the island, which emerged from the sea just two decades ago, are not allowed to move away unless they have government permission.

Bangladesh says the relocation is voluntary, but some of the first group of refugees, moved in December, spoke of being coerced. The government also says overcrowding in camps in the Cox's Bazar district fuels crime.

It has also dismissed flood concerns over the island, citing the building of a 12-km (7.5-mile) -long stretch of embankment 2 metres (6.5 feet) high, in addition to housing for 100,000 people, hospitals and cyclone centres.

Bangladesh has drawn criticism for reluctance to consult with aid bodies, including the U.N. refugee agency, over the transfers.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says the agency has not been allowed to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on the island.

"We look forward to continuing a constructive dialogue with the government regarding its Bhasan Char project, including the proposed U.N. technical and protection assessments," it said in an email.

(Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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