(New York) – Bangladesh authorities have quarantined 29 Rohingya refugees without adequate access to aid on an unstable silt island in the Bay of Bengal, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities said that they are holding the refugees, who had been adrift at sea for over two months, on Bhasan Char to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media on May 2, 2020, that the new arrivals were ethnic Rohingya who fled Myanmar to try to reach Malaysia. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with families found that at least seven of those detained are registered refugees from the camps in Bangladesh. Momen said that all future arrivals will be transferred to Bhasan Char, which experts have warned may not be fit for habitation and contains no access to humanitarian services provided by the United Nations or aid agencies.
“Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of Covid-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland.”
Several trawlers, each packed with several hundred Rohingya, set out for Malaysia in March, but at least two were intercepted and turned away with a fresh supply of food and water. On April 15, the Bangladesh coast guard received one boat with nearly 400 people, who said that as many as 100 may have died on board before the rescue. At least two other boats remain stranded at sea with an estimated 700 refugees.
Early in the morning of May 2, at least 50 Rohingya from one of the trawlers were transferred to smaller boats by smugglers after families paid ransom, and landed on the Bangladesh coast. Many of the Rohingya were able to disappear into the camps, but the authorities captured 29.
Additional Rohingya refugees are soon expected to arrive in Bangladesh. Families told Human Rights Watch that they had paid the smugglers between 35,000 and 60,000 taka (US$400 to $700) on top of the amounts they paid for the initial journey, to ensure that their relatives returned safely ashore.
A Rohingya refugee from the Kutupalong camp said that after he paid the smugglers, his two daughters were brought from the trawler to the Bangladesh coast on May 2, but both now have been sent to Bhasan Char. “I’m worried about my daughters who have been taken to that island,” he said. “They informed me that they’re afraid they may not be able to return. It’s really painful.” He said that the Bangladesh authorities did not contact him before sending them to Bhasan Char: “My daughter told me that some government officer in Bhasan Char said, ‘your parents will be brought here to Bhasan Char.’ We did not care how much we had to pay to get our daughters back, but now there is uncertainty about whether they will return from Bhasan Char, or whether we will also be forced to relocate there by Bangladesh authorities.”
Another refugee said that the smugglers brought his sister back 54 days after she left the camp, but when he went to meet her at the police station, he was told she “had already been sent to Bhasan Char.”
Bangladesh authorities claim they do not want to “pollute” the Rohingya camps during the pandemic, but failed to provide the refugees with access to UN and other international agencies before sending them to Bhasan Char. A representative from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told Human Rights Watch that they are prepared “to ensure the safe quarantine of any refugees arriving by boat to Cox’s Bazar,” near where the refugee camps are located.
Cox’s Bazar has facilities that include testing and quarantine centers established by agreement with the Bangladesh government. In April humanitarian agencies helped to organize the quarantine of about 400 refugees rescued from a boat. After completing the quarantine and testing negative for Covid-19, they returned to their families.
Bangladesh should not quarantine refugees at Bhasan Char until they coordinate with the UN and other agencies to ensure that proper medical and food assistance are provided, Human Rights Watch said. Once the quarantine period is over, they should immediately be taken back to reunite with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.
Over 900,000 Rohingya refugees are living in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh after fleeing mass atrocities in neighboring Myanmar. Myanmar authorities have not created conditions for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees despite entreaties from the UN and governments around the world.
Bangladesh says it cannot accept any more Rohingya refugees. Foreign Minister Momen said that the navy and coast guard are on alert to prevent any additional boats with Rohingya from entering Bangladesh. Such pronouncements contravene Bangladesh’s international legal obligations to respond to boats in distress, coordinate rescue operations, and not push back asylum seekers whose lives are at risk at sea.
Countries should ensure that there are adequate search and rescue services in their coastal waters to respond to boats in distress. Regional governments should ensure effective and coordinated search and rescue zones to save lives when they learn of boats in distress. There are heightened concerns for refugees stranded at sea ahead of a strong cyclone that is currently forming in Bay of Bengal.
“Myanmar’s culpability for the plight of the Rohingya does not give Bangladesh free rein to send people to an island where their lives could be in danger,” Adams said. “Support from international donors can help Bangladesh protect the refugee population from the pandemic while upholding the rights and safety of newly arriving boat people.”