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.
Malaysia criticism of Myanmar over the Rohingya issue has been vocal, especially in recent years. Government leaders have spoken out through different platforms, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
However, things have visibly changed in recent months, particularly following the Covid-19 pandemic. Kuala Lumpur has not only changed its tone but also its policy and actions toward the people it had stood up for. Its actions have indicated that Kuala Lumpur has transformed from being a vocal critic of violence against the Rohingya community to a country of refusal.
One important reason why Malaysia has been sympathetic to the cause of Rohingya is because of its shared beliefs in Islamic teachings. But it is intriguing as to why Malaysia has decided to change its perception toward the Rohingya whose fate is still very much precarious.
Of course, one widely reported reason is the fear of contracting Covid-19 through the refugee population.
Though it is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, Malaysia has for years been one of the favourite destinations for Rohingya fleeing the oppression they are experiencing in Myanmar.
At the 34th Asean summit in Thailand last year, Malaysia strongly condemned violence against the Rohingya community. During a meeting with his Southeast Asian counterparts in Bangkok on June 22, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Bin Abdullah called for the “perpetrators of the Rohingya issue to be brought to justice”.
Earlier on Nov 13, 2018, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad slammed Myanmar and said, “It would seem that Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to defend what is indefensible… They are actually oppressing these people to the point of killing them, mass killing.”
During an interview with Anadolu Agency in July 2019, Dr Mohamad had also said, “They [the Rohingya] should either be treated as nationals, or they should be given their territory to form their own state… massacre or genocide is involved and Malaysia is against genocide and the unfair treatment of the citizens of Myanmar.”
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.”
Also Read This: No end in sight to the suffering of the Rohingya
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.”
While the world has been in lockdown as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and the media focused on the economic and social effects of the pandemic, the Rohingya continue suffering under a ruthless regime in their homeland, Myanmar, and in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The coronavirus simply added to their existing misery. Even the risky prospect of attempting to escape on treacherous rough seas in search of a better life is no longer an option.
The coronavirus simply added to their existing misery. Even the risky prospect of attempting to escape on treacherous rough seas in search of a better life is no longer an option.
In a statement to the 44th session of the Human Rights Council last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Michelle Bachelet said: “The Rohingya refugee crisis has effectively become protracted, with no solution in sight.”
The human rights situation the Rohingya are facing in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has not improved, and the conditions required for their safe, dignified and sustainable return home from Bangladesh are not in place, she added. In addition, restrictions placed on humanitarian access and freedom of movement as a result of the pandemic have exacerbated the situation.
Hundreds of people have attempted to escape to other nations in rickety boats, only to be turned away by authorities in destination countries out of fear that the refugees might spread the coronavirus, leaving them stranded at sea for months.
Also Read This: Bangladesh claims COVID-19 outbreak contained in Rohingya camps
In the squalid refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, meanwhile, the threat posed by the virus is increased by the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions. Social distancing is almost impossible. Families live at close quarters in flimsy bamboo shacks. They have to use communal toilets and water facilities that are not always clean or available. Even the most basic items, such as soap, are scarce.
In other words, the Rohingya are doomed wherever they go.
While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is working in the camps to protect people from COVID-19 and treat the infected, an internet ban imposed by the Bangladeshi government “for security reasons” has added to the distress of refugees. It has left them cut off from the outside world with no access to news or reliable information about the pandemic. As a result, rumors spread quickly.
The rising number of confirmed cases is putting growing pressure on the UN refugee agency’s ability to provide enough equipment and isolation facilities, medication, food and water, and to conduct medical tests. It is running out of funding and human resources.
A coronavirus outbreak among Rohingya refugees has been “successfully contained,” Bangladesh officials have said after fears that the disease spread rapidly in overcrowded camps.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya live in squalid camps in southeastern Bangladesh after fleeing a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar, where the mostly Muslim community is a minority. Some 724 Rohingya have been tested in the Bangladesh camps, with 54 found positive since the first cases were detected in May, officials said.
“We have successfully contained the outbreak,” Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday, adding that only five Rohingya have died from the virus so far.
It was not clear, however, if some Rohingya avoided testing because of fears they would be moved to an isolated and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, where other refugees were taken to after being found at sea.
Also Read More: Japan’s Kirin should stop supporting Myanmar military
In contrast, there have been more than 2,776 confirmed infections including 60 deaths among the 2.4 million Bangladeshis living in the wider Cox’s Bazar district, where the camps are located, Talukder said.
The three dozen camps were locked down after the first few cases were found, with refugees barred from leaving the area.
Officials used loudhailers to tell residents to wash their hands, stay indoors and wear a mask if they were in public spaces, said Rohingya teacher Mohammad Shafi, who lives in the Kutupalong shelter, the world’s biggest refugee camp.
Authorities distributed soap among the refugees, shut most shops and restricted the number of aid workers allowed to enter the camps, he added.
“A lot of people suffered from seasonal flu, headaches, body pain and diarrhea in recent weeks,” Shafi told AFP.
Take a walk, watch television, or use the subway. Do any of these activities in Japan and you will likely come across a Kirin advertisement. Since its inception in 1885 as Japan Brewery, Kirin has grown into a household name in Japan, and arguably one of the world’s best-known Japanese brands.
The beverage giant offers everything from soft drinks to plum wine to yogurt. But its beer is the company’s trademark product, available in more than 40 countries. Its distinctive label depicts the legendary kirin, a magical creature “believed to be a harbinger of good luck.”
However, Kirin’s partnership with the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has brought anything but luck to Myanmar’s ethnic minority populations. For decades, the Tatmadaw has been responsible for grave abuses against the country’s minorities, including the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Also Read This: Internal conflicts in Myanmar harm Rohingya return efforts: FS
In August and September 2017, the Tatmadaw intensified its campaign of ethnic cleansing, committing widespread killings, sexual violence, and torching of villages against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state that sent more than 740,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh, where they now live in the world’s largest refugee camp.
A United Nations–backed Fact-Finding Mission reported in 2018 that atrocities by Myanmar’s armed forces against ethnic minorities “rise to the level of both war crimes and crimes against humanity” and in late 2019 warned that the Rohingya faced an increased risk of genocide.
Foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen on Sunday said that conflicts between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine are not helpful for building confidence among Rohingya people to go back to their home.
‘Conflicts have created instability in Rakhine,’ he said in an online discussion organised by the Centre for Research and Information in Dhaka.
The spread of COVID-19 also slowed down the attempts for repatriating Rohingya people, he said, adding, ‘It does not mean that Rohingya people would stay in Bangladesh for an indefinite period.’
Justifying the government’s decision for sending Rohingya people to Bhasan Char, the foreign secretary said that the congestion in the existing camps in Cox’s Bazar has created risks involving security situation, human trafficking, and smuggling of drugs.
‘We want to decongest the camps by relocating about 1,00,000 people to Bhasan Char, where there are livelihood opportunities for the camp dwellers.’
Refugee relief and repatriation commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder said that measures were taken to extend COVID-19 test and treatment facilities for Rohingya people and local people in Cox’s Bazar.
COVID-19 pandemic situation has also created uncertainty over starting the process of Rohingya repatriation, he said.
UNHCR representative in Bangladesh Steven Corliss, Dr Sumaya Tasnim, medical officer at Leda camp Jani Alam, and a Rohingya youth volunteer participated in the discussion moderated by Showvik Das Tamal.
The Rohingya are among the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities — haunted by the past and denied a future.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world and into their squalid refugee camps, they’re confronted by another grim prospect: separation from loved ones.“There’s Covid-19, it’s quite clearly spreading in the camps. But the Rohingya will not go to get tested,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“They are afraid of being taken from their family, they are afraid of being isolated, they’re afraid of being taken to this horrible detention island called Bhasan Char — which is in the middle of nowhere… It’s like a Rohingya Alcatraz,” he said, referring to the former island prison in San Francisco.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Rakhine state in western Myanmar — formerly known as Burma. Most fled their homes after the military launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017.
Today, nearly a million Rohingya refugees live in cramped, temporary housing in the Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar, home to one of the world’s largest settlement camps.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told CNBC there were 50 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 5 deaths among the refugees in Cox’s Bazar as of July 1. Testing was ramped up to 700 a day, and about 0.06% of the 860,000 Rohingya in the camps have been tested. Additionally, Myanmar’s health ministry reported 10 confirmed cases in Rakhine, UNHCR said.
It’s hard to know the true extent of the outbreak among the Rohingya, argued Robertson.
“People are refusing to go. I think the only people you’re really seeing that turn up and get tested are the people who are gravely ill, and have no other choice … they need to get treatment or they may die.”
“We have noticed a decline in the number of refugees approaching health facilities for COVID-19 symptoms in the last weeks,” said Louise Donovan, a communications officer at UNHCR. She said there appears to be “fear and anxiety among refugees,” as those who volunteered to be tested had to be isolated for precautionary reasons.
Additionally, an internet shutdown in camps in Bangladesh and some towns in Rakhine “has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak,” Human Rights Watch said.
“Two more Rohingya die from corona: Locals in panic” — screamed a recent newspaper headline in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
Social media has sometimes been equally hysterical. One college teacher posted on Facebook that lack of awareness about COVID-19 among Rohingya refugees from Myanmar “will lead to our collapse.”
In August 2017, more than 740,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fled a brutal military crackdown in northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine state and entered Bangladesh as refugees. The United Nations described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Bangladesh already had 200,000 refugees from earlier Rohingya exoduses that began in the 1970s.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated resentment in the densely populated country toward the refugees, and also brought further uncertainty to their chances of repatriation.
The Rohingya have meanwhile been exasperated at the lack of consultation by Myanmar, Bangladesh and the UNHCR. Refugee leaders feel their views were sidelined in any discussions as early as November 2017 when repatriation was first addressed.
Abdul Mozid, a rural physician, runs a drug store near Kutupalong camp, a sprawling settlement made of bamboo and plastic sheets that is home to over 500,000 refugees. “Camps are like slums,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review. “People are scared that this will spread the coronavirus.”
In the 34 densely packed camps, social distancing simply cannot be observed, points out Yassin Abdumonab, a young Rohingya researcher and poet living in Kutupalong.
But some officials are bullish. Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation, credits the efforts of officials and aid groups, as well as restrictions on movement, in keeping the numbers of confirmed cases and fatalities low in the refugee camps.
As of July 4, five Rohingya had died of COVID-19 — about one-seventh of deaths in surrounding communities. The number of confirmed cases outside exceeded 2,700 compared to just 52 in the camps.
Centre for Research and Information (CRI) hosted the live discussion session titled ‘Let’s Talk on Rohingya Response and Covid-19’ on Sunday
Speakers at a virtual discussion lauded the government’s early planning and joint efforts with the United Nations (UN) and humanitarian partners to limit the transmission of coronavirus in the congested Rohingya camps, saying that this story must be heard globally.
They vowed to continue working together to keep Rohingya people and the host community safe and protected, reports UNB.
Centre for Research and Information (CRI) hosted the live discussion session titled ‘Let’s Talk on Rohingya Response and Covid-19’ on Sunday.
Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh Steven Corliss, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder, Medical Officer and IPC focal for Leda ITC Sumaya Tasnim, and Rohingya representative Jane Alam took part in the discussion moderated by Showvik Das Tamal.
Corliss highly appreciated the government and the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) for taking decisive actions with the support from the partners in limiting people inside and outside the camps, and thus controlling transmission of the virus.
He appreciated joint efforts in scaling up the health response and facilities for both Rohingyas and the host community.
“Covid-19 has increased humanitarian needs,” said the UNHCR representative, adding that they are making the best use of funds reducing their own cost.
He, however, said they should not be complacent with the progress, noting that they have to improve testing capacity gradually ensuring facilities for the Rohingyas and the host community.
“Despite constraints, we have managed Cox’s Bazar quite well. This is a good story and must be shared globally,” Foreign Secretary Masud Momen said, describing the Covid-19 scenario in various parts of the world.