(New York) – The Bangladesh government has failed to honor its pledge not to involuntarily hold Rohingya refugees on the remote, unprotected island of Bhasan Char, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 5, 2020, the government arranged a three-day “go and see visit” to Bhasan Char for 40 Rohingya refugees, including camp leaders, during which those on the island begged to be allowed to return to their families in Cox’s Bazar camps.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 Rohingya refugees from the visiting delegation after they returned to Cox’s Bazar from Bhasan Char on September 8. Some said they wanted the refugees detained on the island to be allowed to return with them. Others expressed serious concerns over the quality of medical facilities on the island, the lack of livelihood opportunities, and the safety of the island during monsoon season.
“The Bangladesh government is detaining refugees on a remote island, separated from their families, in a callous attempt to claim that that it is safe and habitable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Only by allowing UN experts to conduct a long-promised independent assessment would it be possible to determine the feasibility, safety, and sustainability of the arrangements at Bhasan Char.”
The visit was arranged without consultation with United Nations agencies or nongovernmental organizations. The government has yet to allow UN refugee agency officials to conduct a protection visit for the 306 refugees detained on Bhasan Char, including at least 33 children.
The Bangladesh government has repeatedly promised that it would await clearance from UN agencies and independent technical experts on emergency preparedness, habitability, and safety of the island before relocating Rohingya to the island. One camp leader who visited the island said that the refugees were also awaiting an expert assessment: “We want international experts from UN and other international agencies to visit Bhasan Char to tell us if it is safe.” Yet refugees in Cox’s Bazar said they are feeling pressure from local authorities to move to the island if they ever want to see their families again.
Visitors, who were allowed to meet with their relatives on the island only once, said that those being held appeared desperate to return to the Cox’s Bazar camps. Two visiting delegation members said that when one woman became frantic about seeing her brother again, Bangladesh navy officers beat her, causing her head to hit a wall. Her brother, who was part of the delegation, said: “When we met, they were all begging and crying, asking us to bring them back to their families. I felt helpless, leaving my sister on that prison-like island alone.” One woman from the delegation said: “Most of the women I talked to said that their only wish was leave Bhasan Char and return to their families.”
A delegation member said the Bangladesh authorities “entertained [the visitors] with the highest hospitality during the entire trip, with good food and nice living spaces.” But members said it felt like a show to make voluntary relocation attractive, when those already on the island have reported ill-treatment.
Another delegation member said, “Our people who were there complained to us that they have never been treated so well and now that we have returned to Cox’s Bazar, those brothers and sisters are being treated like they were before.” Previously, refugees on the island have said that they were not allowed to move freely and did not have adequate access to food or medical care. Some refugees have alleged that Bangladesh authorities on the island had beaten and ill-treated them.
Visitors corroborated that those on the island were being denied freedom of movement. “You will not find the ‘jail’ word over there, but everything looks like a jail,” a delegation member said. “Most of the refugees held at Bhasan Char said to us that they weren’t allowed to move freely on the island and most of the time they have to remain inside shelters that look like jail cells.”
Refugees told another Rohingya delegation member that the authorities on the island do not allow the refugees to gather to say their prayers at the mosque, claiming that it would risk spreading Covid-19, even though the authorities had isolated everyone on the island for over four months. “If they built the structures for the Rohingya refugees, then why are they not allowed inside the mosques,” he said.
Visiting refugees expressed serious concerns about the lack of adequate medical care on the island. “Many of Rohingya people being held on the island told us that they don’t get proper medication from the camp authorities and that the health facilities on the island are inadequate,” one man said. “If anyone becomes critically ill, the closest option is a hospital that is a minimum three-hour journey by boat.” He said some refugees told him that a few days earlier, one of the refugees had fallen unconscious, and the authorities had transported him by naval helicopter to the port of Chattogram for medical care. “I don’t think Bangladesh authorities will arrange a military chopper for the Rohingya all the time,” he said. “We can also fall ill in the [Cox’s Bazar] camps but at least there are health facilities and organizations there that provide health care.”
Some of the refugees who visited Bhasan Char said that women and girls on the island do not have access to proper sanitary supplies to maintain safe menstrual hygiene. Others said that they were concerned about the apparent lack of sustainable livelihoods on the island. One of the visitors said: “I can never choose Bhasan Char as a livable place. I saw with my own eyes that there is nothing to do for a livelihood. How come the authorities are promising Rohingyas agriculture and farming in an area surrounded by an embankment on every side.”
“Go-and-see” visits, when arranged by the UN refugee agency, are usually organized as one of a number of steps to facilitate the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of refugees to their countries of origin. They are not employed as a standalone measure and are accompanied by a range of humanitarian assessments to ensure protection of returnees. If the Bangladesh government wants to borrow this concept for the relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char, it should allow UN and international experts to visit the island, Human Rights Watch said.
The arbitrary detention of hundreds of refugees on a possibly uninhabitable remote island without access to humanitarian assistance or basic services violates Bangladesh’s international human rights obligations to provide security, freedom of movement, access to medical care, education, and the right to work.
“Instead of putting on a show for visitors and laying out fancy feasts, the Bangladesh government should listen to refugees’ most basic plea: to be safely reunited with their families,” Adams said. “Bangladesh authorities should follow through with their original promise by bringing the refugees back to their families in Cox’s Bazar and moving forward with the planned independent UN assessment of the island.”