By JULHAS ALAM
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Authorities in Bangladesh on Friday started sending a first group of more than 1,500 Rohingya refugees to an isolated island despite calls by human rights groups for a halt to the process.
The 1,642 refugees were boarding seven Bangladeshi naval vessels in the port of Chittagong for the trip to Bhashan Char, according to an official, who could not be named in accordance with local practice.
The island was once regularly submerged by monsoon rains but now has flood protection embankments, houses, hospitals and mosques built at a cost of more than $112 million by the Bangladesh navy.
Located 21 miles (34 kilometers) from the mainland, the island surfaced only 20 years ago and was never inhabited.
The United Nations has also voiced concern that refugees be allowed to make a “free and informed decision” about whether to relocate to the island in the Bay of Bengal.
The island’s facilities are built to accommodate 100,000 people, just a fraction of the million Rohingya Muslims who have fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently living in crowded, squalid refugee camps.
On Thursday, 11 passenger buses carrying refugees left Cox’s Bazar district on the way to the island, where they are expected to arrive after an overnight stopover, a government official involved with the process said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He said “a few thousand” refugees were in the first batch. Authorities in Cox’s Bazar did not say how the refugees were selected for relocation.
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