First Rohingya Refugees Arrive at Isolated Bangladesh Island

    04 December 2020

    Officials in Bangladesh on Friday sent the first group of more than 1,500 Rohingya refugees to live on an isolated island. The move came as international organizations have called for the process to be stopped.

    The 1,642 refugees left on seven Bangladeshi naval ships for the three-hour trip from Chittagong to Bhasan Char island. The information came from an official who could not be named.

    Bangladeshi reporter Saleh Noman traveled with the refugees. He said by phone from the island that health workers checked the refugees for temperatures and gave face coverings to protect against COVID-19 at the start of the trip. They were then given rice, eggs and chickens for lunch.

    Rohingya refugees stand in line after they disembarked from a Bangladesh Navy ship to the island of Bashar Char in Noakhali on December 4, 2020.
    Rohingya refugees stand in line after they disembarked from a Bangladesh Navy ship to the island of Bashar Char in Noakhali on December 4, 2020.

    Where is Bhasan Char?

    Bhasan Char is about 60 kilometers from the mainland. No one has ever lived there. The island was once regularly underwater after heavy rains. It surfaced from the water of the Bay of Bengal only 20 years ago.

    The island now has flood protection barriers for houses, hospitals and mosques at a cost of more than $112 million.

    The new buildings can shelter about 100,000 people. That is just a small number of the million Rohingya Muslims who are now living in crowded refugee camps in Cox's Bazar.

    The builders say it is like a modern town with homes, schools, play areas and roads. It also has a water system and storm shelters. Foreign reporters, however, have not been permitted to visit the island.

    The director of building development on Bhasan Char is Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury. He told local reporters on the island that the international community did not need to worry about the safety of the refugees.

    He said he expects that the United Nations and other aid groups would be pleased with the condition after their visit. Asked when that would be, he answered that the government is working on it.

    Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly told the U.N. that no refugees would be forced to go to the island. But officials in Cox's Bazar did not say how the refugees were chosen for the move to the island.

    Rights groups called for a halt

    International aid agencies and the U.N. have been loudly against moving the refugees to the island since it was first announced in 2015. They feared that a strong storm could destroy the island and put many lives in danger.

    The U.N. said in a statement Wednesday that it has not been involved in the move. "Rohingya refugees must be able to make a free and informed decision about relocating to Bhasan Char," the U.N. said.

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged the Bangladeshi government to cancel the plan.

    About 700,000 Rohingya fled to the camps in Cox's Bazar after August 2017. That is when the military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar began a violent campaign against Muslims following an attack by Rohingya rebels.

    The military-led campaign included rapes, killings and the destruction of thousands of homes. It was called an "ethnic cleansing" by international rights groups and the U.N.

    Bangladesh has tried to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar. But they are unwilling to go because of fear for their safety. They are also not recognized as citizens in Myanmar, making them stateless people.

    I'm Susan Shand.

    The Associated Press reported on this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    isolated – adj. separate from others

    mosque - n. a building that is used for Muslim religious services

    cleanse - v. to make something clean, remove dirt

    relocate - v. to move to a new place

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