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Bangladesh Begins to Relocate Rohingya Refugees to Flood-Prone Island

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Bangladesh is set to start moving Rohingya refugees to a remote, flood-prone island despite objections from the refugees and human rights groups—stoking fears of forced relocation.

Critics of the plan have dubbed Bhasan Char an “island detention center,” noting its isolation — it’s estimated at least three hours offshore by boat — and allegations that families were being compelled or even financially enticed to go there.

Government officials have pledged that no one will be forced to relocate to the island, but moving there will alleviate overcrowding in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. The lead architect of the resettlement site, Ahmed Mukta, has gone further and said it will be a “paradise” for the Rohingya.

Even as human rights groups voiced alarm Thursday, Bangladeshi authorities are continuing with preparations to imminently transport between 1,000 to 3,000 Rohingya refugees to the island, according to an official in the office of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, who declined to be named because there is no official statement prepared.

“The relocation should start from today,” the official told TIME.

Satellite views of Bhasan Char
A Rohingya Refugee camp development surrounded by the Bay of Bengal on the island of Bhasan Char of Bangladesh.Gallo Images / Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2019/Getty Images

Video sent to TIME from the refugee camps by residents who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal showed several buses departing Thursday afternoon that were believed to be ferrying Rohingya families to a transit site en route to the island.

Shah Rezwan Hayat, the commissioner of the refugee office, told local media that a small group would be moved initially, but declined to specify a timeline, saying no date had been fixed.

Urging authorities to halt this week’s plan, Refugees International said it was “short-sighted and inhumane,” and emphasized that Bangladesh is still in cyclone season.

“The move is nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people,” the Washington-based group said in a statement.

Bhasan Char, a slit of land that emerged from the sea less than 20 years ago, has never been inhabited before and remains off-limits to journalists and humanitarian groups without prior permission. Requests to allow the United Nations to carry out an independent assessment of the island’s safety and sustainability have reportedly gone unanswered. In a statement, the U.N. said it had not been involved in the preparations for this move.

Yanghee Lee, the former U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar, previously questioned whether the island was habitable after visiting in 2019. “Ill-planned relocation, and relocations without the consent of the refugees concerned, have the potential to create a new crisis,” she told the Human Rights Council.

Chief among the concerns of rights groups and refugees is whether the isolated island will be safe from seasonal flooding and cyclones. Bangladeshi officials have dismissed the fear, citing the construction of an embankment around the settlement.

For several years, Bangladeshi authorities have raised the possibility of relocating 100,000 Rohingya to the island to alleviate overcrowding in the world’s largest refugee camp.

Read more: Rohingya Muslims Are Stuck in Bangladesh’s Refugee Camps

Bangladesh has had to accommodate nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar—one of the poorest and most densely populated places on the planet—after they were uprooted by successive waves of violence across the border in Myanmar. In 2017, more than 730,000 members of the Muslim minority group fled a military-led campaign of rape, murder and arson that is currently the subject of a genocide trial.

Last year, concrete housing blocs, solar panels, roads and a mobile phone network were reportedly installed on Bhasan Char as the Bangladeshi government moved ahead with its plan.

Authorities started to settle around 300 people there earlier this year, initially as part of coronavirus quarantine measures after a boat carrying refugees was found floating adrift in the Bay of Bengal. But they were never moved back to the camps.

Some separated families have agreed to go to the remote island because they believe it is the only way to reunite with loved ones, according to interviews conducted by Amnesty International.

Two women told the Guardian that guards had sexually assaulted female refugees on the island. Amnesty was also told of similar accounts. Bangladesh has denied the reports.

In the sprawling camps, there is widespread fear about the island, not least because of the worry about being moved somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

“If the government sends us to Bhasan Char our generation’s future will be totally diminished,” says a refugee who also asked not to be named for fear of backlash.

Bangladesh has previously said international observers concerned about Bhasan Char should host the Rohingya in their own countries.

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Write to Laignee Barron at Laignee.Barron@time.com