Human rights activists raised doubts over claims by Bangladeshi officials that all relocated refugees had volunteered for the move.
Human Rights Watch said earlier this week that it had identified 12 families that were instructed to move to the island, according to official documents that reportedly list 4,000 names, having never volunteered to do so.
“I have no idea how my name appeared there, but I never voluntarily put my name on that list,” one refugee told the organization. Reuters reported similar incidents.
“The Bangladesh government is actively reneging on its promise to the UN not to relocate any refugees to Bhasan Char island until humanitarian experts give a green light,” Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Thursday. “If the government were genuinely confident in the habitability of the island, they would be transparent and not hastily circumvent UN technical assessments.”
A spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said Friday that authorities needed to ensure that those making the move are being relocated voluntarily and based on accurate information.
The agency said it is willing to evaluate the island, to determine if it constitutes a “safe and sustainable place for refugees to live.”
Many Rohingya refugees have lived in Bangladesh since 2017, when hundreds of thousands fled neighboring Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country also known as Burma, amid a military crackdown on the Muslim minority group. The U.N. has described the crackdown as ethnic cleansing.
Bangladeshi authorities argue that the mainland camps hosting more than 1 million Rohingya refugees, in the country’s southeastern Cox’s Bazar district, are too crowded and increasingly unsafe, due to mounting crime, the spread of disease and poor overall conditions.
But rights groups fear Bhasan Char island is also ill-suited to host tens of thousands of refugees. The island has only existed for about two decades — it emerged as a result of sediment deposition from a nearby river — and flooded regularly in the past. Erosion has wrought frequent shifts in the island’s shoreline, even in its brief history.
Bangladeshi officials say that Bhasan Char is safe for residents, as it was recently equipped with hospitals and flood protection mechanisms.
Human rights groups maintain that the 15-square-miles island does not have appropriate medical care facilities, and that whatever infrastructure is present could be vulnerable to storms.
“Donor governments engaged in the Rohingya crisis response, such as the US, UK, Japan, Australia, and Canada, should take a clear stand against this rash move to relocate Rohingya to Bhasan Char,” Adams, the Human Rights Watch Asia director, said.
Some of those donor countries — Australia in particular — might not be able to claim the moral high ground on the issue. Bangladesh’s plan to seclude refugees on a remote island echoes the Australian immigration system, which has relied on islands to confine asylum seekers under desolate conditions while they are being processed, with some apparently trapped there indefinitely.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel also reportedly pondered sending migrants to a remote island in the southern Atlantic. She appeared to have abandoned the idea by the time it was first reported in September.