The Rohingya refugees reached the island on Friday afternoon after a three-and-a-half-hour voyage by sea
A total of 1,642 Rohingyas are settling in after arriving at Bhashan Char – their new home – during the first phase of relocation, in what may be called a milestone in Bangladesh’s handling of the Rohingya crisis.
They set sail on navy and army vessels from three different points in Chittagong and arrived at the island at around 2pm on Friday, after a three-and-a-half-hour voyage by sea.
This correspondent travelled with them on a ship that departed from Chittagong Boat Club point at around 10:30am.
With their arrival, the process of relocating Rohingyas from the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan Char has officially kicked off.
Upon arrival, the Rohingyas were taken to a welcome camp after they were disinfected and their temperature was checked, as a safety precaution for Covid-19.
The relocated Rohingyas had also been tested for Covid-19 before their departure from Cox’s Bazar on Thursday.
They were later taken to a warehouse, where Commodore AA Mamun Chowdhury, director of the Bhashan Char project, welcomed them to the island and assured them of everything to make their stay comfortable.
The Rohingyas were briefed about their stay in the island at the warehouse, and then a special munajat (prayer) was offered.
During the journey and after the arrival, the Rohingyas looked happy at the prospect of getting new accommodation.
When this report was filed at 6pm on Friday, the newly-arrived Rohingyas were settling in the homes allocated to them.
Earlier in the day, about a dozen Rohingyas of different ages told Dhaka Tribune that they were going to Bhashan Char willingly after they had been apprised of different aspects of the island.
They were not forced by anyone, they added.
Some of them said the deteriorating conditions in the camps at Cox’s Bazar prompted them to take the option of moving to Bhashan Char.
On Thursday, several convoys of buses transported the Rohingyas, willing to relocate, to Chittagong from Cox’s Bazar, where they stayed the night at a Bangladesh Air Force facility.
The government had initially planned to relocate around 2,500 people from the camps to the island in the first phase, but that could not take place due to unknown reasons.
A convoy of 19 vessels transferred the Rohingyas from Chittagong on Friday.
Five navy ships and an army ship ferried the 1,642 Rohingyas and another navy ship was kept stand-by as backup in case of any emergency.
Four speed boats, four country boats, two navy and two coast guard boats escorted the seven ships.
Armed personnel of Bangladesh Navy were in charge of ensuring security of the ships carrying them.
‘Ready to receive 100,000 Rohingyas’
Speaking to reporters after welcoming the Rohingyas, Commodore Chowdhury, director of the Bhashan Char project, expressed satisfaction that the relocation had finally taken off.
“Yes, there were challenges, but at long last, we have been able to receive the Rohingyas, for whom we have been waiting for a long time,” he said.
Commodore Chowdhury said the living standards of the Rohingyas would be much better at Bhashan Char than that in Cox’s Bazar.
Responding to a query, he said: “We are fully ready to receive a total of 100,000 Rohingyas.”
However, he did not say when the next batch of Rohingyas could be expected to arrive at the island.
The project director also said the newly-arrived Rohingyas would receive ready meals for the first five to seven days. After that, they will be able to cook their own food.
Their new homes are stocked with all the necessities.
When asked if the Rohingyas, who had just been relocated, would have the liberty to return to Cox’s Bazar if they did not want to stay in the island, Commodore Chowdhury said it would depend on the decision of the Office of the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner.
Over 750,000 Rohingyas fled a military crackdown in Myanmar starting in August 2017, finding refuge across the border in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
They joined some 300,000 Rohingyas, who had fled decades of violence in the Rakhine state before and had been living in Cox’s Bazar. More than 1.1 million refugees are now living in Cox’ Bazar.
The navy prepared the Tk3,100-crore housing project in Bhashan Char to ease the congestion in the Cox’s Bazar camps.
In a statement on Wednesday, the UN said it has limited information on the relocation exercise and had not been involved in the preparation process.
It said it is ready for consultation with the government. The UN further said any relocation should be voluntary and all protection measures must be in place.
The UN and rights groups have been questioning the idea of relocating Rohingyas to Bhashan Char, saying it is a low-lying isolated island and has risks of flooding, but at a point last year agreed to send a technical team to assess the condition and requested the government to allow the visit before relocation.
A team of Bangladeshi reporters had earlier visited Bhashan Char to assess the conditions of the island before the government started the relocation process.