NEW DELHI - Bangladesh will move 2,000-3,000 more Rohingya Muslim refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal this week, a navy officer said on Wednesday, despite complaints by rights groups concerned about the site's vulnerability to storms and flooding.
Bangladesh has relocated about 3,500 of the refugees from neighbouring Myanmar to Bhasan Char island since early December from border camps where a million live in ramshackle huts perched on razed hillsides.
Bhasan Char emerged from the sea only two decades ago and is several hours by boat from the nearest port at Chittagong. The Rohingya, a minority group who fled violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are not allowed to move off the island without government permission.
"Most probably, they will be taken to Chittagong tomorrow and the next day, they will be sent to Bhasan Char from there," Navy Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury told Reuters.
"Last time, we had preparations for 700 to 1,000 but finally more than 1,800 Rohingya moved there. People who moved earlier are calling their relatives and friends to go there. That's why more people are going there."
Bangladesh justifies the move to the island saying overcrowding in the camps in Cox's Bazar is leading to crimes.
It also dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2-metre (6.5 feet) embankment for 12 km (7.5 miles) to protect the island along with housing for 100,000 people, as well as facilities such as cyclone centres and hospitals.
Its actions, nevertheless, have attracted criticism from relief agencies that have not been consulted on the transfers.
"The U.N. has previously shared terms of reference with the government for the technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char, though we have not yet been permitted to carry out these assessments," the U.N. refugee agency said in an email.
"We emphasize that all movements to Bhasan Char must be voluntary and based upon full information regarding the conditions of life on the island and the rights and services that refugees will be able to access there."
The government says the relocation is voluntary but some refugees from the first group that went there in early December have spoken of being coerced.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie) ((Krishna.Das@tr.com; +91 987111 8314;))