Bangladesh has yet to decide on the relocation of more than 300 Rohingya refugees, including children, from Bhasan Char Island to the camps in Cox’s Bazar district, more than two months after they were quarantined there amid the nationwide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, officials told Arab News on Sunday.
“As of today, there is no decision of relocation the Rohingya to the mainland refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. The Rohingya are (being) taken care of by the Bangladesh Navy, and everything is going well over there,” Shah Rejoan Hayat, joint secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MDMR), said.
The Rohingya were rescued by the Bangladesh Navy on May 2 and sent to Bhasan Char after being stranded at sea for weeks following Malaysia’s decision to deny them entry due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Bangladesh to move the Rohingya from the “flood-prone island” in the Bay of Bengal, accusing officials of using the pandemic to “detain refugees” on Bhasan Char, which it says is extremely vulnerable to monsoon storms.
“Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return,” HRW said in a statement released on Thursday.
It added that the Bangladeshi government was “inexplicably delaying aid workers’ access to support the refugees with immediate care, and refusing for relocation them with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.”
According to HRW, the quarantined refugees “do not have access to food, clean drinking water or medical care,” while others have allegedly been “beaten up and mistreated by the authorities,” the statement said.
However, Bangladeshi authorities have rejected HRW’s claims, reasoning that the 308 refugees were sent to the island because authorities were afraid they might have contracted COVID-19.
“These Rohingya were denied access by Malaysia, Thailand and driven out from Myanmar. Bangladesh was kind enough to accept them on humanitarian grounds. So Bangladesh doesn’t deserve any criticism in this regard, it might be applicable for some other countries,” Mohammad Shamsuddoza, additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Arab News.
Hayat said HRW’s concerns were unfounded because Bhasan Char, an artificial island completed in 2006, had been constructed to be protective.
“The Bangladesh Navy has a forward base over there and enough protective measures to ensure the safety of inhabitants on the island,” Hayat, who is also the chief of the MDMR’s refugee wing, said.
Bangladesh authorities should immediately move over 300 Rohingya refugees, including at least 33 children, from the silt island of Bhasan Char to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps to be with their families, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite pledges, the Bangladesh government has yet to allow United Nations officials to provide protection services and aid to the refugees detained on Bhasan Char, who had been stranded at sea for several weeks.
The authorities said that the rescued refugees needed to be temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to protect against the spread of Covid-19 in the crowded camps. However, more than two months later, the refugees remain on the island, at risk of flooding and storms during the current monsoon season, despite calls from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian experts to safely return them to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government is inexplicably delaying aid workers’ access to support the refugees with immediate care, and refusing to reunite them with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.”
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Families in Cox’s Bazar told Human Rights Watch that relatives on Bhasan Char are being held without freedom of movement or adequate access to food or medical care, and face severe shortages of safe drinking water. Some refugees have alleged that they were beaten and ill-treated by Bangladesh authorities on the island.
Some families in Cox’s Bazar said that camp leaders told them that if they wanted to see their family members, they must join them on the island. One refugee in Cox’s Bazar told Human Rights Watch that a leader from his camp came and collected his personal information, saying that they needed it because his son is on Bhasan Char. “One of them visited my shelter and said I might need to go over there to join my son,” he said.
But he has serious concerns about going to Bhasan Char, even to see his son. “When I was last able to talk to my son, he complained about everything over there,” he said. “If we are forced to relocate there then there will be no option other than to flee from my shelter. My son even told me not to agree to their proposal at any cost.”
Thai authorities should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unhindered access to Rohingya from Myanmar to determine whether they qualify for refugee status, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s inhumane policy of holding Rohingya arriving in Thailand in indefinite detention should be immediately repealed.
The latest group of Rohingya arrived in Thailand by land, crossing from Myanmar into Mae Sot district of Tak province on May 20, 2020. Thai authorities arrested at least 12 Rohingya and sent them to the Mae Sot immigration detention facility. Approximately 200 Rohingya are being held in immigration detention and other facilities across Thailand.
“The Thai government should scrap its policy of summarily locking up Rohingya and throwing away the key, condemning them to indefinite detention in cramped and unhygienic detention centers now susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Rohingya have been brutally persecuted in Myanmar. Thailand should permit the UN refugee agency to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status.”
Refugee screening is crucial for protecting Rohingya asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. The Myanmar government and military have long persecuted the Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority group who have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for generations. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who have been effectively denied citizenship in Myanmar, have fled repression and dire poverty. Human trafficking gangs have abused and exploited many of those who eluded death during their dangerous journey.
The situation has significantly worsened since August 2017, when the Myanmar military committed ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, driving as many as 740,000 into exile in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Responsibility for the security of the Rohingya rests primarily with the Myanmar government, but extends to the countries where they seek refuge, Human Rights Watch said. Like its predecessors, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has treated Rohingya arriving at the border as illegal immigrants, subject to detention in squalid immigration lockups. The government has not permitted UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations for them. Thailand also discriminates against Rohingya by refusing to allow them to register as legally documented migrant workers, unlike other people coming from Myanmar.
The Bangladesh government has kept over 300 Rohingya refugees confined on Bhasan Char, a remote silt island in the path of a super cyclone without adequate protections or safety measures, Human Rights Watch said today. Three people were reported killed in Bangladesh soon after the storm struck the coast.
The authorities should take immediate steps to ensure safety and transfer the refugees, including nearly 40 children, to the camps in Cox’s Bazar as soon as possible. The United Nations refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations are there, prepared to provide them with critical services and reunite them with their families.
“The Bangladesh government properly brought Rohingya refugees stranded at sea ashore, but holding them on a tiny island during a cyclone is dangerous and inhumane,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Our fear that Bhasan Char would become a ‘floating detention center’ has now turned into a fear of a submerged one.”
Cyclone Amphan made landfall on the Bangladesh coast on the evening of May 20, 2020, though it shifted course slightly so Bhasan Char is no longer in its direct path. Bangladesh’s Land Ministry has previously reported that Bhasan Char could be submerged by a strong cyclone at high tide. About 300 Bangladesh security officials are also on the island.
Bangladesh rescued two boats of Rohingya refugees in early May after Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh authorities pushed them back to sea for two months. While Bangladesh initially stated that the refugees were being temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has since said they would “most likely” be held on the island indefinitely.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 Rohingya refugees, including both refugees on the island and their family members in Cox’s Bazar. They said that those on the island are being confined in prison-like conditions without freedom of movement or adequate access to food, water, or medical care. Some alleged beatings by Bangladesh security forces.
The ink was barely dry on a statement by Southeast Asian governments pledging to leave “no one behind” in the coronavirus pandemic when reports of hundreds of Rohingya refugees adrift in the Andaman Sea emerged in early April.
But instead of showing solidarity, the countries demurred on sending out search and rescue missions or granting access. When one of the boats approached Malaysia hoping to land, the navy pushed it back—giving the desperate passengers food but refusing to tow them to land. The boats lingered at sea for two months before nearly 400 emaciated refugees were rescued by Bangladesh on April 15. Another boat with almost 300 Rohingyas languished in Bangladeshi waters for weeks before its navy reluctantly rescued them on May 7. Calls by Dhaka for more support from Southeast Asia have fallen on deaf ears. In the meantime, pushed out by the ongoing persecution and violence in Myanmar and hardship in the Bangladeshi camps, the Muslim minority continues to flee by boat.
The Malaysian government points to the coronavirus threat as justification for turning the refugees away. Bangladesh is asking why it should again be its job to come to the Rohingyas’ rescue, calling for Western countries to act instead of chastising others. But while people are starving, there is no time for whataboutism. Human rights organizations have called the refusal to help a “death sentence” that might turn the Andaman Sea into a “graveyard.”
Such repudiations are not new for the Rohingya or for other victims of human rights violations in Southeast Asia. Among states where human rights abuses are rife, resources often scarce, and the principle of noninterference reigns, governments can count on one another to look the other way when needed.
More than 670 makeshift dwellings for Rohingya refugees in a camp across Bangladesh’s southern district of Cox’s Bazar were damaged in a fire on Tuesday morning, according to officials.
“We’ve been confirmed about the fire incident and are now assessing the extent of damages officially,” Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mahbub Alam Talukder told Anadolu Agency.
No casualties were reported so far, he said. “The UNHCR [UN refugee agency] will repair the damaged tents soon.”
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, UNHCR communication officer in Bangladesh Louise Donovan said that a total of 312 shelters were destroyed, with 362 more partially damaged, as well as small shops and businesses.
“The UNHCR mobilized emergency response teams and coordinated with our partners,” she said, adding that Rohingya refugees themselves had been the first responders. “Thankfully, no loss of life has been reported.”
Rahmat Karim, a Rohingya victim whose house was also damaged in the incident, told Anadolu Agency that more than 500 houses had been damaged.
“Above 500 of our houses were fully damaged and some other houses were partially damaged,” Karim added.
He said: “Five people of us have been wounded during the rescue works. Two or three people are still missing.”
Meanwhile, local media reports said that at least 100 makeshift tents were damaged in a fire at the Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Ukhia Upazila at around 9.00 a.m. local time [0300GMT].
Eighty-four rights groups have urged Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to address the hate speech against Rohingya refugees following the online campaign against the community which began shortly after the partial lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
In a joint statement copied to Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, Human Resources Minister M Saravanan and Suhakam chairman Othman Hashim, they said the attacks on the community had raised “serious concerns” about Malaysia’s commitment to protecting human rights, including the rights to equality, non-discrimination, life and security stated in international law and guaranteed under the Federal Constitution.
To date, they said, the government had “failed to adequately respond” to the surge in hate speech as well as the threats directed at the Rohingya population in the country.
They also accused Putrajaya of sending mixed messages regarding the attacks on the community.
On April 27, they said, senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had expressed sympathy for the Rohingya and urged Malaysians to take a peaceful approach to the issue.
“However, on April 30, this message of tolerance was undermined by an official statement by the home minister that emphasised the Rohingya’s lack of legal status or rights in Malaysia and justified measures ‘to stop the intrusion of illegal immigrants,” they said.
They also claimed that authorities had “sought to cast blame on the Rohingya community” for the spread of hate speech and discriminatory rhetoric, citing police investigations opened into Rohingya social media users who had posted videos containing derogatory remarks about Malaysians.
Stranded at sea in hundreds, Rohingya women are being raped by the crew members of the boat and getting pregnant, and on the other hand, the traffickers are extorting additional money promising to get ashore either in Bangladesh or Malaysia exploiting the pushback as a pretext, according to family members.
A recent survivor Nurul Islam said, “The traffickers raped women and some of them got pregnant on the boat.” He also informed that many people died due to trauma, starvation, dehydration and malnutrition.
Brother of another victim currently on the boat adrift told RVision, “The trafficker recently asked from me extra (_0,000) BDT and promised me that they will get ashore in Bangladesh in a few days. On Sunday, I deposited the amount to a local phone number (018__ ____) via bKash service. I had to pay as I was threatened and worried about the safety of my brother.” adding “But he is saying me again that they are watching the situation calming down to head to their preferred destination.”
The source requested us not to disclose the information hidden above and his identity as it could endanger his brother.
Reportedly, the traffickers are not intentionally trying to sneak ashore though it could be possible like the first group of 29, lest they could lose the expected amount as the authorities in both sides are fully aware of the situation.
According to the source, if the authorities detained the trafficking victims, it is a great loss for the traffickers, because the money is conditioned with the safe arrival of the victims.
A group of up to 29 refugees includes women and children have reportedly been transferred to Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal by the Bangladesh authorities. They are believed to be part of a larger group of up to 350 refugees, of whom A small boat carrying 43 people manage to land on coast while others are still stranded at sea.
Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, including children, have arrived at “a de facto detention island” in Bangladesh after being stranded at sea for weeks.
Rights groups had warned that the refugees, who had been turned away from other countries in the region, were at risk of starvation and abuse by people traffickers. It is believed that other boats remain adrift.
Bangladesh confirmed on Thursday that a boat carrying 280 people was being towed to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited silt island off the southern coast. The country’s foreign minister, Abdul Momen, had earlier said that refugees rescued at sea would be sent to the island to prevent any risk of spreading the coronavirus to the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar, where a million Rohingya live in cramped conditions.
Bangladesh, which has struggled to cope with the camps, planned to start moving refugees to Bhasan Char last December, and has built rows of concrete barracks to house about 100,000 people. The relocation was put on hold following an outcry from Rohingya community leaders and international agencies.
Human rights groups say the island, which can be reached only by a three-hour boat journey, has no access to basic services and is vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said there was no need to send refugees to the island to be quarantined because the UN’s refugee agency and other bodies had facilities set up for this purpose in Cox’s Bazar. Instead, families should be reunited with missing relatives as quickly as possible.
“While everyone is appreciative that Bangladesh has brought forsaken Rohingya boats ashore, arbitrarily branding the passengers as ‘new arrivals’ and packing them off to a de facto detention island like Bhasan Char is not a rights respecting solution,” he said.
More than 250 Rohingya Muslim refugees who had been floating for weeks on a fishing boat in the Bay of Bengal arrived Friday on an island in southern Bangladesh, officials said.
The 277 refugees were taken to Bhasan Char island after they reached Bangladesh’s coast, said Mohammed Alamgir Hossain, police superintendent in Noakhali district where the island is located. He said the navy took them there after their boat was spotted.
The Rohingya were being guarded and would be quarantined for 14 days to protect against the coronavirus, he said.
Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said they received reports about the Rohingya being taken to the island. “We are seeking further information from the Bangladesh authorities,” she said.
Another group of 29 Rohingya reached the island on Sunday after weeks of floating at sea and failing to reach Malaysia.
Taking the refugees to Bhasan Char is an issue of concern for the U.N. and other international agencies. They earlier opposed a government plan to relocate 100,000 Rohingya there from crowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Bhasan Char was previously submerged by monsoon rains but the government said in January that it was ready to relocate the refugees there.
The navy was involved in a multimillion-dollar project in which flood protection embankments, houses, hospitals and mosques were built on the island. But so far, no refugees have agreed to voluntarily move there.