A global refugee advocacy group has questioned the role of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) over whether it is helping to detain Rohingya refugees in prison-like conditions by providing services on a controversial island camp.
Refugees International said there were “serious questions” about whether it was safe and possible to move such numbers to the island from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, which are the world’s largest, hosting about 890,000 refugees.
Reports said about 700 of the newly relocated refugees tried to flee the island and the involvement of the UN agency is expected to stop the Rohingyas from leaving, according to government officials.
Bangladesh, for the last few months, started relocating almost 20,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal thought to be vulnerable to cyclones, which the refugees are unable to leave.
The government plans to increase the island’s population by 80,000 over the next three months.
“Most concerning is whether any relocations of Rohingya refugees to the island will be truly voluntary, evidenced by the fact that hundreds of refugees relocated there have already tried to flee,” said Daniel Sullivan, Refugees International’s senior advocate for human rights.
“As Refugees International has warned in the past, failure to properly assess conditions and inform refugees about the move will result in policies more akin to detention than refuge.”
The Geneva-based Global Detention Project tweeted: “In signing a new memorandum of understanding with the Bangladesh government, is the UNHCR assisting in the detention of Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char island? Are refugees free to move on and off the island? Are they moving there truly voluntarily?”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in June that the government had misled refugees about conditions on the island and that some had been relocated without informed consent.
HRW also reported that, despite promises from the government of good living conditions, they did not have access to work or education and were unable to leave.
In May, during a visit by senior UNHCR officials to inspect the island, thousands of refugees defied orders to remain in their shelters to protest at the living conditions. The UNHCR later said it was “deeply concerned” that refugees were injured during the protest.
A Rohingya teacher living in the Cox’s Bazar camps said they opposed the UNHCR’s cooperation with the government because they did not believe the island was fit to live on.
“There is not any freedom for the Rohingya people in Bhasan Char. People who have gone there thought life would be comfortable for them, as the government said they would be provided with everything they need,” said the teacher.
“At least the government could consider free movement for the people who are in Bhasan Char, so they could travel to see their relatives,” she continued.
A leaked copy of the agreement offers no guarantee that refugees will be able to move freely to the mainland, Reuters reported on Friday.
Bangladesh has justified relocating refugees to the island by arguing that conditions are better than the overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar, which have witnessed devastating floods and fires this year. (Source: The Guardian)