Human Rights Watch has asked the Bangladesh government for the immediate relocation of 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.
The rights body also claimed that despite its promise, the Bangladesh government has still not allowed the United Nations (UN) officials to provide protection services and aid to the refugees living on the island for the past two months.
Earlier in May, the government had sent some Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char. They were rescued after being stranded at sea for several weeks.
The rescued refugees were taken to the island to protect the heavily crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar against the possible spread of coronavirus.
As there are risks of flooding and storms in Bhasan Char during the current monsoon season, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian experts made several calls to the government to safely return the rescued refugees to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, HRW said on Thursday.
“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 of HRW.
“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,” he 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.
HRW reported that Families in Cox’s Bazar said that their relatives in Bhasan Char are being held without freedom of movement or adequate access to food or medical care, and they face severe shortages of safe drinking water.
The rights body also claimed that some refugees alleged that they were beaten and ill-treated by the authorities on the island.
Some families in Cox’s Bazar said camp leaders told them that if they wanted to see their family members, they must join them on the island.
HRW stated one refugee in Cox’s Bazar said 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.
However, the refugee said 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,” he said.
HRW claimed that refugees’ fears over relocating to Bhasan Char are well-founded as 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. (Source: HRW)