Rohingya refugees in risky coronavirus quarantine on remote island


Bangladesh govt. has quarantined 29 Rohingya refugees on a controversial flood-prone island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, without adequate access to aid.

The authorities said they are holding the refugees, who had been adrift at sea for over two months, on  the island to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the camps, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report it published on Tuesday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media on May 02, that the new arrivals were ethnic Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar to try to reach Malaysia.

However, HRW interviews with families found that at least seven of those detained are registered refugees from the camps in Bangladesh.

Momen said all future arrivals will be transferred to Bhasan Char, which experts have warned may not be fit for habitation and contains no access to humanitarian services provided by the United Nations or aid agencies, the report said.

“Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of COVID-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW said. “Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland.”

Several trawlers, each packed with several hundred Rohingyas, set out for Malaysia in March, but at least two were intercepted and turned away with a fresh supply of food and water.

On April 15, the Bangladesh coast guard received one boat with nearly 400 people, who said as many as 100 may have died on board before the rescue. At least two other boats remain stranded at sea with an estimated 700 refugees.

The HRW report further said that on May 02, at least 50 Rohingyas from one of the trawlers were transferred to smaller boats by smugglers after families paid ransom and landed on the Bangladesh coast.

Many of the Rohingya were able to disappear into the camps, but the authorities captured the 29 who were subsequently sent to Bhasan Char.

Families told HRW that they had paid the smugglers between Tk35,000 and Tk60,000 (US$400 to US$700), on top of the amounts they paid for the initial journey, to ensure that their relatives returned safely ashore.

A Rohingya refugee from the Kutupalong camp said that after he paid the smugglers, his two daughters were brought from the trawler to the Bangladesh coast on May 02, but both now have been sent to Bhasan Char.

“I’m worried about my daughters who have been taken to that island,” he said. “They informed me that they are afraid they may not be able to return. It is really painful.”

Another refugee said the smugglers brought his sister back 54 days after she left the camp, but when he went to meet her at the police station, he was told she “had already been sent to Bhasan Char.”

Bangladesh authorities claim they do not want to “pollute” the Rohingya camps during the pandemic, but failed to provide the refugees with access to UN and other international agencies before sending them to the island.

A representative from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told HRW that they are prepared “to ensure the safe quarantine of any refugees arriving by boat to Cox’s Bazar,” near where the refugee camps are located.

Once the quarantine period is over, they should immediately be taken back to reunite with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps, UNHCR said. (Source: HRW)