(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should immediately move over 300 Rohingya refugees, including at least 33 children, from the silt island of Bhasan Char to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps to be with their families, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite pledges, the Bangladesh government has yet to allow United Nations officials to provide protection services and aid to the refugees detained on Bhasan Char, who had been stranded at sea for several weeks.
The authorities said that the rescued refugees needed to be temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to protect against the spread of Covid-19 in the crowded camps. However, more than two months later, the refugees remain on the island, at risk of flooding and storms during the current monsoon season, despite calls from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian experts to safely return them to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government is inexplicably delaying aid workers’ access to support the refugees with immediate care, and refusing to reunite them with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.”
Families in Cox’s Bazar told Human Rights Watch that relatives on Bhasan Char are being held without freedom of movement or adequate access to food or medical care, and face severe shortages of safe drinking water. Some refugees have alleged that they were beaten and ill-treated by Bangladesh authorities on the island.
Some families in Cox’s Bazar said that camp leaders told them that if they wanted to see their family members, they must join them on the island. One refugee in Cox’s Bazar told Human Rights Watch that a leader from his camp came and collected his personal information, saying that they needed it because his son is on Bhasan Char. “One of them visited my shelter and said I might need to go over there to join my son,” he said.
But he has serious concerns about going to Bhasan Char, even to see his son. “When I was last able to talk to my son, he complained about everything over there,” he said. “If we are forced to relocate there then there will be no option other than to flee from my shelter. My son even told me not to agree to their proposal at any cost.”
Refugees’ fears over relocating to Bhasan Char are well-founded. Humanitarian experts have repeatedly raised concerns over the habitability of the island and whether refugees living there would have freedom of movement and access to food, water, medical care, and education. When then-UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, visited the island in January 2019, she questioned whether the island was “truly habitable.”
Given these concerns, Bangladesh authorities have repeatedly said that no refugees would be involuntarily relocated to Bhasan Char, saying that the government would await a “green signal” from UN agencies and independent technical experts. Shah Kamal, senior secretary of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Ministry, told the media on October 30, 2019, that “UN agencies will conduct a technical assessment regarding the safety issues in the island … and we will not start the relocation without any clearance from the UN agencies.”
However, the government has gone back on this promise by refusing to return the refugees to their families, preventing UN agencies from visiting the refugees to provide protection, medical, and verification services, and refusing to allow UN agencies access to the island to conduct a transparent assessment of its habitability.
Bangladesh actions to move more refugees to Bhasan Char would be a dangerous reversal of the government’s position, Human Rights Watch said. A disaster management and relief minister, Enamur Rahman, told Reuters in February that “We have not taken a final decision yet, but we're no longer interested in moving them [to Bhasan Char],” and added that the government wanted to work with China and Myanmar to focus “instead on a safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation.”
Meanwhile, Myanmar has yet to take concrete steps to enable safe and voluntary refugee returns. Donors and concerned governments should insist that the Myanmar government and military ensure the security and basic rights of Rohingya, ensure unhindered access for international humanitarian agencies to provide resources and monitor rights, and provide full citizenship for the Rohingya, with all accompanying rights and protections, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Bangladesh government’s assurances that the refugees on Bhasan Char are safe and well-off means the authorities should welcome the UN’s unfettered access to the island to provide protection and basic services, and conduct a long overdue technical assessment,” Adams said. “While Bangladesh authorities should not be cruelly holding refugees’ lives in the balance, concerned governments should do more to press Myanmar to accept responsibility for the Rohingya refugees.”