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Thousands of Rohingya refugees being moved to remote ‘prison island’ despite international outcry

The Independent logo The Independent 04/12/2020 Namita Singh
a group of people in a park © Provided by The Independent

Bangladesh has started relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees to what has been described as a "prison island" prone to cyclones and extreme flooding in the Bay of Bengal, prompting international condemnation. 

Located at about 21 miles from the mainland, the controversial island facility can accommodate a tenth of the refugees who are currently sprawling in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, near the Myanmar border. The island, which surfaced only 20 years ago, has never been inhabited and is regularly submerged during monsoon season.  

“They have taken us here forcefully,” a 31-year-old man told Reuters as he boarded a bus from the camps near Cox’s Bazar. “Three days ago, when I heard that my family is on the list, I ran away from the block, but yesterday I was caught and taken here,” he said.

An 18-year-old woman said that her spouse had put their names on the list thinking it was for rations. He fled when they were told to go to Bhasan Char, she said, adding that she is also hiding in the camp.

While Bangladesh says that it is only moving the refugees who have consented into moving to Bhasan Char, a number of refugees and humanitarian groups have complained that they are being coerced into going to the flood-prone island.  

“The government is not taking anyone to Bhashan Char forcibly. We maintain this position,” Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told reporters on Thursday.   

The Human Rights Watch has described conditions on the island as "poor" with Rohingya likely facing a lack of adequate medical care. The group has also expressed concerns that refugees there could be denied freedom of movement, sustainable livelihoods or education.  

In a statement, Refugees International said the relocation was "short-sighted and inhumane," and should be stopped.

"Without appropriate assessments and adequate information for refugees about conditions on the island, the move is nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people in violation of international human rights obligations," said Daniel Sullivan, the group's senior human rights advocate.  

The United Nations said that it was not involved in preparations and has been given "limited information" on the relocations. It has also not been given access to the island to carry out safety and technical assessments.

"Rohingya refugees must be able to make a free and informed decision about relocating to Bhasan Char based upon relevant, accurate and updated information," the statement said.

"Any relocations to Bhasan Char should be preceded by comprehensive technical protection assessments. These independent United Nations assessments would review the safety, feasibility and sustainability of Bhasan Char as a place for refugees to live, as well as the framework for protection and the assistance and services they would be able to access on the island."

According to the state authorities, the movement of refugees will help in easing the chronic overcrowding of camps that are home to more than a million Rohingya refugees. Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, however, slammed the rights organisation for their criticism. 

"I simply don't get it," Mr Alam was quoted as saying by CNN. "Why they are opposing a better life for them when they terribly failed in doing their job?"

Almost a million Rohingya -- most of whom fled a military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017 -- live in a vast network of squalid camps in south-east Bangladesh.

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