The Bangladesh government has failed to honour its pledge not to involuntarily hold Rohingya refugees on the remote, unprotected island of Bhasan Char as those on the island begged to be allowed to return to their families in Cox’s Bazar camps, Human Rights Watch said.
On September 05, the government arranged a three-day “go and see visit” to Bhasan Char for 40 Rohingya refugees, including camp leaders, to convince them and the community they represent to move to the island.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 Rohingya refugees from the visiting delegation after they returned to Cox’s Bazar from Bhasan Char on September 08 and none had a favourable opinion about the island.
Some of the delegation said they wanted the refugees detained on the island to be allowed to return with them.
Others expressed serious concerns over the quality of medical facilities on the island, the lack of livelihood opportunities, and the safety of the island during monsoon season.
“The Bangladesh government is detaining refugees on a remote island, separated from their families, in a callous attempt to claim that that it is safe and habitable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Only by allowing UN experts to conduct a long-promised independent assessment would it be possible to determine the feasibility, safety, and sustainability of the arrangements at Bhasan Char.”
The Bangladesh government has yet to allow UN refugee agency officials to conduct a protection visit for the 306 refugees detained on Bhasan Char, including at least 33 children.
The Bangladesh government has repeatedly promised that it would await clearance from UN agencies and independent technical experts on emergency preparedness, habitability, and safety of the island before relocating Rohingya to the island.
One camp leader who visited the island said that the refugees were also awaiting an expert assessment: “We want international experts from UN and other international agencies to visit Bhasan Char to tell us if it is safe.”
Yet refugees in Cox’s Bazar said they are feeling pressure from local authorities to move to the island if they ever want to see their families again.
Visitors, who were allowed to meet with their relatives on the island only once, said that those being held appeared desperate to return to the Cox’s Bazar camps.
Two visiting delegation members said that when one woman became frantic about seeing her brother again, Bangladesh navy officers beat her, causing her head to hit a wall. Her brother, who was part of the delegation, said: “When we met, they were all begging and crying, asking us to bring them back to their families. I felt helpless, leaving my sister on that prison-like island alone.”
One woman from the delegation said: “Most of the women I talked to said that their only wish was leave Bhasan Char and return to their families.”
A delegation member said the Bangladesh authorities “entertained [the visitors]with the highest hospitality during the entire trip, with good food and nice living spaces.” But members said it felt like a show to make voluntary relocation attractive, when those already on the island have reported ill-treatment.
Visitors corroborated that those on the island were being denied freedom of movement. “You will not find the ‘jail’ word over there, but everything looks like a jail,” a delegation member said.
“Go-and-see” visits, when arranged by the UN refugee agency, are usually organized as one of a number of steps to facilitate the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of refugees to their countries of origin.
If the Bangladesh government wants to borrow this concept for the relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char, it should allow UN and international experts to visit the island, Human Rights Watch said. (Source: HRW)