Authorities in Bangladesh have begun relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island despite concerns about safety and consent.
About 1,600 refugees were being transported on Friday towards Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, Reuters reported.
Bangladesh says all those being moved have given consent.
But Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh told the BBC in October they did not want to be relocated to the island.
Rights groups have raised concerns that many travelling to the island on Friday were being moved against their will.
Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed 12 families whose names were on transport lists but who had not volunteered to go. The United Nations said it had been given “limited information” about the relocations and was not involved.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister Abdul Momen said on Thursday night that the government “was not taking anyone to Bhasan Char forcibly. We maintain this position”.
The Rohingya have fled Myanmar after a military crackdown which began three years ago in which UN investigators say as many as 10,000 people were killed and more than 730,000 forcibly displaced.
Hundreds of thousands have since lived in Cox’s Bazar, a sprawling refugee camp inside neighbouring Bangladesh.
Rashida Khatun, 55, told the BBC in October that her children were among an initial 300 refugees sent to Bhasan Char against their will earlier this year after spending several months at sea attempting to flee Bangladesh.
When BBC reporters visited the island in October, they were denied access to the refugees already living there.
On Thursday, a 31-year-old man told Reuters tearfully by phone as he boarded a bus from Cox’s Bazar: “They have taken us here forcefully. Three days ago, when I heard that my family is on the list, I ran away from the block, but yesterday I was caught and taken here.”
Mohammad Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the relocation was voluntary.
“They are going there happily. No-one is forced. The government has taken all measures to deal with disasters, including their comfortable living and livelihood,” he said.
Bangladeshi authorities have been building on the island for three years, at a cost of $350m (£270m). Their aim is to relocate more than 100,000 refugees in order to ease tensions within the camps inside Bangladesh.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International released a damning report on the conditions faced by the 306 Rohingya already living on the island. The report contained allegations of cramped and unhygienic living conditions, limited food and healthcare facilities, a lack of phones in order for refugees to be able to contact their families, as well as cases of sexual harassment by both the Navy and local labourers engaging in extortion.
Commodore Abdullah al Mamum Chowdhury, a spokesman for the Navy, denied the charges. “We are taking care of them as our guests,” he said. “They are given proper food and access to all facilities.”
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