Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar enter Bangladesh after fleeing a military crackdown in Rakhine state on Sept. 30, 2017. Bangladesh has quarantined 29 refugees on an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal amid Covid-19 fears. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Bangladeshi authorities have placed more than two dozen Rohingya refugees under Covid-19 quarantine on a flood-prone uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal, days after they were rescued from people smugglers.
A total of 29 refugees were quarantined on Bhasan Char (Floating Island), an islet originally earmarked to house around 100,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
That plan was abandoned after rights groups criticized the move and refugees and aid agencies refused to cooperate.
“The 29 refugees have been moved … for quarantine and are under the supervision of the Bangladeshi navy,” Mahbub Alam Talukder, head of the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), told UCA News.
He said the move was not an RRRC decision and declined to say whether any of the refugees had tested positive for Covid-19. “The decision came from high up in government, and we cannot say anything about it,” Talukder said.
It comes after Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said on May 2 that the new arrivals were Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and would be separated so that they wouldn’t “contaminate” refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Transferring the refugees to the island drew criticism from rights groups.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the decision to transfer refugees to a place without adequate access to aid was unacceptable and claimed that at least seven of the Rohingya sent to the island were from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“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,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement on May 5.
“Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland,” he added.
Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh, however, was less critical. It was standard procedure, according to Pintu William Gomes, head of its Rohingya Response Project.
“It is a standing order that any outsider should be separated from the refugee community to prevent possible transmission of the virus. On the other hand, there is lack of testing and quarantine facilities [in refugee camps]. On that ground the decision is logical,” Gomes told UCA News.
A three-pronged coordination effort is under way to prevent Rohingya refugees from contracting the dreaded disease — Cox’s Bazar district administration, the RRRC and aid agencies — Gomes explained.
“Sometimes it is difficult, but essential services including food and sanitation are operational. Everything is being done carefully to protect both the community and our employees,” Gomes added.
Cox’s Bazar is home to about one million Rohingya Muslims in dozens of refugee camps. The majority fled to Bangladesh to escape deadly military crackdowns in Rakhine state of Myanmar in 2016 and 2017.
Despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries, Rohingya are denied citizenship and basic rights as they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As such they have been subjected to persecution by state authorities and extremist Buddhists, according to activists and international bodies including the United Nations.
In recent years Rohingya refugees in the Bangladesh camps as well as in Myanmar have attempted to flee to wealthier Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia by taking illegal and dangerous sea voyages on traffickers’ boats.