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BANGLADESH began relocating hundreds of Rohingya refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal today, despite human rights groups’ concerns over the conditions on the vulnerable low-lying island.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group, over 700,000 of whom fled persecution and violence in neighbouring Myanmar in August 2017. Bangladesh has been sheltering over a million Rohingya people in crowded camps near its coast.
A UN-sponsored investigation in 2018 recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the violence against the Rohingya.
A senior Bangladeshi official overseeing the relocation, Mohammad Shamsud Douza, said that a naval ship would take 379 people from Chattogram city to the Bhashan Char Island which lies off the country’s south-eastern coast.
“They are going there voluntarily. All the 379 refugees have chosen to live there for a better and secure life,” he said.
Mr Douza said a total of 1,500 refugees would be transported to the island in phases over the next few weeks. Previously, about 19,000 refugees were relocated to the island from Cox’s Bazar where more than a million Rohingya refugees live in crowded camps.
The government says the relocation is a temporary arrangement and eventually they will have to return to Myanmar, although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also said she will not force the refugees to return.
The UN and other groups have criticised the relocation, saying the island, which is regularly submerged by monsoon rains, was not fit for habitation.
The International Federation of Red Cross said in a statement this week that urgent action was needed to protect the refugees from cyclones and the Covid-19 pandemic on Bhashan Char Island.
It said Bangladesh’s Red Crescent has been working directly with the refugees so that lifesaving measures are in place ahead of the next big cyclone, as big storms regularly threaten the Bay of Bengal from September until December.
It said vaccinations have been underway for people aged over 55 on the island, and more doses are due for the remaining adults.
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