The United Nations refugee agency said it was concerned about reports that Bangladeshi police have arrested 59 Rohingya refugees who fled a controversial island camp after being coerced into relocating.
The UNHCR said in a statement on Wednesday after a four-day visit to Bangladesh that it “remains concerned about reports of refugees being arrested and detained for attempting to leave Bhasan Char” because of poor conditions.
While the UNHCR inspected the island on Monday, several thousand Rohingya held a protest against conditions there, with some throwing rocks and smashing windows, police said.
The UNHCR said it was “deeply concerned to learn of reports of refugees who were injured” during the demonstrations.
Bangladesh has shifted about 18,000 refugees out of a planned 100,000 to the low-lying silt island of Bhasan Char from squalid, cramped settlements on the mainland, where 850,000 of them live.
The UNHCR added that those on the island, which critics say is vulnerable to the cyclones that hit the region, needed “access to meaningful livelihoods opportunities, skills development, education, health and access to cash to facilitate their daily lives”.
The agency also said that it “strongly discourages the use of relocation (from the mainland camps) to Bhasan Char as a punitive measure”, something which Bangladesh denies doing.
Two Rohingya refugees who fled the island recently told AFP that hundreds of refugees have escaped but island police chief Mahe Alam put the number at fewer than 100.
“Bhasan Char has some potential, though the human and protection elements of refugees living there must be fully considered,” said UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs.
“They should have freedom of movement on the island and must be granted the possibility to return to Cox’s Bazar (on the mainland) and to maintain family connections with those in the camps,” said Triggs.
Most of the 850,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh had fled a brutal military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 that UN investigators concluded was executed with “genocidal intent”.
Praising Bangladesh for its “humanitarian spirit”, the UNHCR said the recent military coup in Myanmar makes “prospects of voluntary repatriation in the short term more challenging”.
It also lauded efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus in the camps but “observed a reduced humanitarian presence in the camps and associated protection risks”. (Source: CNA)