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Bangladesh Begins Moving Displaced Rohingya Muslims To Remote Island


Bangladesh is going ahead with a plan to move some of its refugees. About a million Rohingya Muslims have been living in Bangladesh since fleeing Myanmar, where the military cracked down on them. Now, despite widespread criticism, Bangladesh plans to stick them on an island. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The first group of more than 1,500 refugees boarded several Bangladeshi naval vessels Friday morning for the trip to Bhasan Char, a flood and cyclone-prone island some 20 miles from the mainland.

PHIL ROBERTSON: It's a de facto prison island. It's like the Rohingya Alcatraz.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

ROBERTSON: There's concerns about health. There's concerns about medical services, a concern about adequate amounts of food and other supplies. I mean, it's a disaster waiting to happen.

SULLIVAN: The government floated the idea several years ago but assured the United Nations and donor nations they'd be granted access to the island before any relocations occurred. That didn't happen, says John Quinley of the human rights group Fortify Rights.

JOHN QUINLEY: The United Nations just issued a statement yesterday requesting, again, to get access to the island before any relocations occur. And Bangladesh did not listen to that at all and moved forward with the relocations regardless.

SULLIVAN: Relocations that very, very few Rohingya are on board with.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: This 50-year-old woman says her name was put on the list without her knowledge and that the local elders told her she had to go. She refused and has decided to hide to avoid going. "My son isn't going," she says. "So if I get sick, who would take care of me? I don't want to die in the middle of the ocean."

A few Rohingya have volunteered to be relocated, lured, says John Quinley of Fortify Rights, by false promises from Bangladeshi officials.

QUINLEY: The Rohingya refugees that were told that they'll be resettled or relocated back to Myanmar with priority, they've been lied to.

SULLIVAN: The government says the island's infrastructure can handle roughly 100,000 people if they can convince or coerce that many Rohingya to make the journey.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.