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U.N., U.S. urge safety assessment of Bangladeshi island where Rohingya shipped

(Reuters) - A U.N. human rights investigator urged Bangladesh on Thursday to allow a safety assessment of the remote island where the government shipped 1,600 Rohingya refugees last week, amid U.S. concern about plans to carry out further relocations.

Rohingyas prepare to board a ship as they move to Bhasan Char island near Chattogram, Bangladesh, December 4, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The United Nations says it has not been allowed to conduct a technical and safety assessment of Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, and was not involved in the transfer of refugees there.

Thomas Andrews, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar, said the assessment as well as a verification process to ensure that refugees are not forced to go were in the “best interest of all”.

“They will assure the government of Bangladesh of the suitability of Bhasan Char to host refugees or identify changes that might be necessary,” he said in a statement.

“It will also assure that the government’s policy of strict voluntary relocation to Bhasan Char is, indeed, being faithfully carried out.”

The United States concurred with the United Nations in its view that any such relocations should be “fully voluntary and based on informed consent without pressure or coercion”, State Department spokesman Cale Brown said.

He said Washington, the biggest donor to the humanitarian response, had asked Bangladesh to accept the U.N. assessment.

“Independent access to Bhasan Char will help to confirm whether refugees were relocated voluntarily and remain there voluntarily, and suitability of the site to withstand cyclones and seasonal flooding,” he said in a statement.

Bangladesh says it is transferring only people who are willing to go and the move will ease chronic overcrowding in camps that are home to more than 1 million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.

But refugees and humanitarian workers say some of the Rohingya have been coerced into going to the island, which emerged from the sea 20 years ago.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said the United Nations should first assess and verify how conducive the environment in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was for repatriating the refugees, before carrying out an assessment of Bhasan Char.

Several attempts to kickstart repatriations of Rohingya to Myanmar have failed after refugees said they were too fearful of further violence in Myanmar to return.

Reporting by Poppy McPherson and Ruma Paul; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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