First Rohingya refugees arrive at isolated Bangladesh island

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Rohingya refugees board a ship as they are ferried to Bhashan Char, or floating island, in the Bay of Bengal, from Chittagong, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Authorities in Bangladesh on Friday started sending a first group of nearly more than 1,500 Rohingya refugees to an isolated island despite calls by human rights groups for a halt to the process. (AP Photo/Saleh Noman)

DHAKA – Authorities in Bangladesh on Friday sent the 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 boarded 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.

After about a three-hour trip they arrived at the island, which 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.

Saleh Noman, a Bangladeshi journalist who traveled with the refugees, said by phone from the island that the refugees were given rice, eggs and chickens for lunch after their body temperatures were measured by health workers as a coronavirus precaution.

Before they boarded the ships they were also given face masks to protect against COVID-19.

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 in Cox’s Bazar district.

The United Nations has 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.