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Rohingya in 'island jail' after relocation to Bhasan Char

Human Rights Watch claims 20,000 refugees lack health care, work, education and protection from storms

Rohingya in 'island jail' after relocation to Bhasan Char

Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar. Rohingya from camps in Cox’s Bazar have been relocated to Bhasan Char but many are finding life tough. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

The Bangladesh government has relocated nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island without adequate health care, livelihood or protection, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on June 7.

The 58-page report, "An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea: Bangladesh’s Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char," stated: “The United Nations and donor governments should urgently call for an independent assessment of the safety, disaster preparedness and habitability at Bhasan Char during the impending monsoon season and beyond.”

HRW interviewed 167 Rohingya refugees between May 2020 and May 2021, including 117 on Bhasan Char and 50 in Cox’s Bazar, 30 of whom were later relocated to Bhasan Char. The report found that the Bangladesh authorities transferred many refugees to the island without full, informed consent and prevented them from returning to the mainland.

While the government says it wants to move at least 100,000 people to the silt island in the Bay of Bengal to ease overcrowding in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, humanitarian experts have raised concerns that insufficient measures are in place to protect them against severe cyclones and tidal surges.

Refugees on the island reported inadequate health care and education facilities, onerous movement restrictions, food shortages, a lack of livelihood opportunities and abuses by security forces.

“The Bangladesh government is finding it hard to cope with over a million Rohingya refugees, but forcing people to a remote island just creates new problems,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director of HRW.

I want to go back to my previous place in Cox’s Bazar with my family so that I can eat at least three times a day and live with my relatives

“International donors should assist the Rohingya but also insist that Bangladesh returns refugees who want to return to the mainland or if experts say island conditions are too dangerous or unsustainable.”

Hossen Taiyub, 48, is now in Bhasan Char with five members of his family. The other four including his younger son are in Balikhali camp in Cox’s Bazar.

“When my family was asked to move to Bhasan Char, they gave us a lot of reassurance like there are many facilities for education and health, there is land for farming, but when I came here I saw that there is nothing, we do not have proper meals three times a day. There is no hospital for treatment,” Taiyub told UCA News.

“I want to go back to my previous place in Cox’s Bazar with my family so that I can eat at least three times a day and live with my relatives. But the authorities will not allow me to go.”

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A local church leader called on the UN, donors and government coordination to solve the problems on the island.

“The Bangladesh government has given shelter to the Rohingya for their safety and to save their lives. Now there may be new problems in Bhasan Char. Donors, especially the UN, need to work with the Bangladesh government to address this issue,” said Liton Hubert Gomes, secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bangladesh Catholic Bishop’s Conference.

“It is not possible for the government of Bangladesh to solve this huge problem alone. They must work with international donor agencies and humanitarian organizations. At the same time, the allegations made by Human Rights Watch must be taken into account and work must be done with the cooperation of all.”

Mohammad Shamsud Douza, refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, denied HRW's allegations.

The government is very humane about the Rohingya

“The UN would not have taken part if these problems existed. They have been asked to work there so that the Rohingya do not have any problems. The government is very humane about the Rohingya,” he said.

Bhasan Char, only reachable by a two-hour boat journey, was an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal and prone to flooding and storms.

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 Rohingya exodus which saw more than 740,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh.

More than US$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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