Rohingyas at Bhasan Char

 

Photo source: Human Rights Watch

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Bangladeshi government wants to relocate around eighty thousand Rohingyas to Bhasan Char Island. This plan is meant to relieve the pressure of the over crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar, where nearly one million refugees live.

These refugees were lured on this silt island, near Bay of Bengal, on the promises of better standards of living and monthly cash assistance.

Although, the hurried relocation to the island presents some serious concerns to the rights of the refugees. This problem demands urgency because during the monsoon season there is grave risk that the refugees, as well as several thousand Bangladeshi officials and volunteers, could end up confined on the island in cyclone-prone waters without adequate food, water, medical care, and transportation. The island also lacks an airstrip for fixed-winged airplanes, reflecting serious concerns of human settlement on the island.

The Bangladesh government had even promised the United Nations and donors that no refugees would be relocated to the island until independent humanitarian and technical experts evaluated its ‘emergency preparedness, habitability, and safety’. But the government renegued on those assurances, moving ahead with relocations while refusing to allow an independent assessment.

In doing so, it has put pressure on the United Nations due to a ‘fait accompli’, by letting them take responsibility for the consequences. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi officials insist that Bhasan Char has been secured with embankments, and that the homes and cyclone shelters are better than anything available to millions of Bangladeshis. They also believe that the camps at Cox’s Bazar have become hotbeds of crime, and the $350m development on Bhasan Char, is touted by the government as a fresh start for them.

According to many experts, however, the current embankments around the island are inadequate to withstand a category three storm or worse. Storm surges in the Bay of Bengal are some of the highest in the world, frequently exceeding 5 meters, at least 27 times in the last 60 years, and sometimes even topping 10 meters. Climate change modelling predicts that cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are likely to increase in frequency and intensity. Hence, what government might be saying is just a propaganda to safeguard their interests.

When Human Rights Watch reporters conducted their interviews, many dwellers said that the authorities had warned them against complaining, and only a selected few were allowed to meet journalists and UN representatives.

The ones who managed to talk to journalists insisted that they were tricked, and the rice they were given was not enough, and they had to march on foot to reach a public health facility. The refugees were also promised many things like a plot of land for each family, cows, buffaloes and loans to start a business, but it also turned out as a lie. Many refugees even complained that they were only given paracetamol (acetaminophen) for health issues including ulcers, chest pain, diabetes, and asthma. Those in need of emergency medical care had to pay for and obtain permission from authorities to be transported to the nearest mainland hospital, which was at least five hours away by sea and road. Such transportation is nearly impossible by either boat or helicopter in inclement weather.

Families often got rotten onions, ginger, or garlic which they can’t even use for cooking. There are no significant shops where they can buy meat or fish. Quantity of rice is distributed per person, but for other items the quantity remains the same per family no matter how big your family is. Although, the worst thing for them remains absence of mainland transportation. There are no ferries, and navy which runs the facility just transport refugees one way. For the refugees, it is like a big prison.

Some refugees even alleged that their relatives were arbitrarily detained and beaten for attempting to leave their compound, countering Bangladesh government claims that all relocations are voluntary. In April 2021, witnesses say a Bangladeshi sailor beat a group of children with a hard-plastic PVC pipe for crossing into another block to play with other children.

Infact, during a follow up UN visit in May 2021, thousands of refugees had gathered, insisting that they wanted to meet the officials, but in return they were also badly beaten by the security forces. In September 2020, an Amnesty International report also alleged sexual assault of Rohingya women by police and navy officials.

Bhasan Char emerged from the sea just fifteen years back, and the first refugees to be housed on Bhasan Char were brought there after they were rescued at sea. It was in May 2020 when the Bangladesh navy responded to international calls to rescue two boats carrying 306 Rohingya refugees that had been lost at sea.

In April 2020, the Bangladesh coast guard had rescued another 390 Rohingya refugees on a boat that had reportedly been turned away by Malaysia. The refugees were starving, dehydrated, and ill after drifting at sea for months before ending up back at the Bangladesh coast. Several had died, their bodies dumped into the sea.  Yet, after bringing the 306 ashore, instead of reuniting the refugees with their families in Cox’s Bazar, the authorities brought them to Bhasan Char. 

Thus, the government should prioritise the safety and protection of the Rohingyas, and grant full freedom of movement, including the right to leave and return to the island without limit.


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