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HRW demands free movement for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Call comes after at least 11 refugees drowned while trying to escape Bhasan Char island

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: August 24, 2021 07:07 AM GMT

Updated: August 24, 2021 07:19 AM GMT

HRW demands free movement for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Rohingya refugees are seen near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

A global human rights body has urged Bangladesh's government to ensure free movement for Rohingya refugees after at least 11 drowned when their boat capsized while fleeing an island.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Aug. 24 that the government should permit Rohingya refugees to leave Bhasan Char island to allow them to be reunited with their families at refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar.

The group also urged the United Nations, which is reportedly finalizing plans to start operations on the island, to make safety and protection of the refugees a priority, including allowing them freedom of movement to return to Cox’s Bazar.

A fishing boat carrying more than 40 Rohingya refugees, including children, from the remote island capsized on Aug. 14 in the Bay of Bengal, leaving at least 11 dead.

Local media reported that 15 people survived the capsize while 11 bodies were recovered and 16 people were missing.

Bangladeshi security forces have arrested about 200 refugees since May who attempted to flee the island to return to Cox’s Bazar, although aid workers suspect the actual number is much higher, HRW said.

The government needs to demonstrate that Bhasan Char is safe and habitable, including by allowing refugees to come and go freely

“The arrests of Rohingya refugees trying to escape what has been described as a ‘prison island’ shows that assurances from Bangladesh authorities of voluntary relocation and freedom of movement were a hoax,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW, said in the statement.

“The government needs to demonstrate that Bhasan Char is safe and habitable, including by allowing refugees to come and go freely.”

HRW said it spoke with four Rohingya refugees who survived the capsize and seven relatives of refugees who were arrested on Aug. 18 for trying to flee the island.

A 36-year-old man, who survived the capsize with his wife but lost all three of their children, told HRW that he paid 30,000 taka (US$350) to Bangladeshi middlemen who assured safe passage for his family to the port city of Chattagram by fishing boat. After the boat capsized, a Bangladeshi rescue team brought them back to Bhasan Char, where the authorities interrogated them.

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“The police official was shouting at us saying it would be better if we had also drowned like our children,” his wife said. “That officer is right. Why am I alive? We failed to go back to Cox’s Bazar, and I lost all my children.”

Another survivor said she and her husband had risked fleeing because of their desperate lives on Bhasan Char.

“My husband is not allowed to work or earn anything. Now he sits idle all day. We are falling ill but have no access to proper medical treatment,” she said.

Bangladesh has resettled about 20,000 refugees from Cox’s Bazar camps to Bhasan Char since December 2020 and they face inadequate health care, education and livelihood opportunities, food shortages and abuses by security forces, according a HRW report released in June.

In July, following a meeting with a UN delegation, Bangladeshi authorities announced that an additional 80,000 refugees would be relocated to the island starting in October, reported the Daily Star newspaper.

Bhasan Char was an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal and prone to flooding and storms

Media reports also say the UN is planning to start operations on the island in the coming months, although it criticized Rohingya relocation to the island when Bangladesh floated the plan.

HRW called on the UN to press Bangladeshi authorities to respect refugees’ freedom of movement and to allow the UN unfettered access to the island, including to speak with refugees without authorities present.

Bhasan Char was an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal and prone to flooding and storms. It takes a two-hour boat journey to reach the island.

Bangladesh first floated the relocation plan to transfer about 100,000 refugees to the island in 2015 but stepped back after criticism from charities and rights groups. The plan was revived after the 2017 exodus which saw more than 740,000 Rohingya flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

The government says more than $280 million has been spent on developing the island, including construction of 120 cluster villages and strong flood and storm embankments stretching over 13 kilometers.

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