(New York) – The Bangladesh government has relocated nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island without adequate health care, livelihoods, or protection, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The United Nations and donor governments should urgently call for an independent assessment of the safety, disaster preparedness, and habitability at Bhasan Char during the impending monsoon season and beyond.
The 58-page report, “‘An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea’: Bangladesh’s Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char,” finds that Bangladesh authorities transferred many refugees to the island without full, informed consent and have prevented them from returning to the mainland. While the government says it wants to move at least 100,000 people to the silt island in the Bay of Bengal to ease overcrowding in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, humanitarian experts have raised concerns that insufficient measures are in place to protect against severe cyclones and tidal surges. Refugees on the island reported inadequate health care and education, onerous movement restrictions, food shortages, a lack of livelihood opportunities, and abuses by security forces.
“The Bangladesh government is finding it hard to cope with over a million Rohingya refugees, but forcing people to a remote island just creates new problems,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director. “International donors should assist the Rohingya, but also insist that Bangladesh return refugees who want to return to the mainland or if experts say island conditions are too dangerous or unsustainable.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 167 Rohingya refugees between May 2020 and May 2021, including 117 on Bhasan Char and 50 in Cox’s Bazar, 30 of whom were later relocated to Bhasan Char.
Primary responsibility for the Rohingya’s situation lies with Myanmar. On August 25, 2017, the military began a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims involving mass killing, rape, and arson that forced over 740,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, which was already hosting an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees who had fled previous persecution. Myanmar has failed to end widespread abuses against the Rohingya and has refused to create conditions for their safe, dignified, and voluntary return.
While Bangladesh commendably opened its borders to the Rohingya, the authorities have not made camp conditions truly hospitable, increasing pressure to relocate to Bhasan Char. The authorities shut down internet access for almost a year in the refugee camps, denied formal education to children, and built barbed wire fencing restricting movement and access to emergency services. Security forces face allegations of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.
In May 2020, Bangladesh first brought over 300 Rohingya refugees rescued at sea to Bhasan Char. Although the government initially said they were being quarantined on the island to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the camps, they have yet to be reunited with their families. In December, Bangladesh authorities started relocating thousands of refugees from the camps to the island, reneging on promises to allow an independent technical assessment of the protection needs, safety, and habitability on the island.
Now, after an 18-member United Nations team was taken to see the island from March 17 to 20, the authorities are pressuring the UN to start delivering humanitarian assistance. Refugees said that during the UN visit they were only allowed to speak in the presence of Bangladesh government officials and were compelled to make it appear there were no problems on the island.
On May 31, 2021, thousands of refugees gathered to try and meet with a delegation of UN officials that were visiting Bhasan Char and to protest conditions, many saying that they do not want to remain on the island. Bangladesh authorities had earlier warned the Rohingya against complaining, some refugees told Human Rights Watch. There were clashes with security forces after the refugees disregarded those instructions, eyewitnesses said, and several Rohingya, including women and children, were injured.
The Bangladesh government should urgently begin consultations with UN officials to discuss any future humanitarian operational engagement on Bhasan Char, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also act on recommendations by the UN after their visit to improve the wellbeing, safety, and protection of Rohingya refugees already on the island.
The Bangladesh government has informed Human Rights Watch in a letter that it had “ensured adequate supply of food along with proper sanitation and medical facilities for Rohingyas on Bhasan Char” and that all relocations were based on informed consent. However, refugees widely refuted these claims. A 53-year-old man said he went into hiding to avoid being transported after the camp administrator threatened him: “He said, even if I die, they will take my body there. I don’t want to go to that island.” Others said they volunteered based on false promises.
Refugees also described the inadequate health facilities on the island. Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people who said they had sought treatment for a range of conditions, including asthma, pain, fever, arthritis, diabetes, ulcers, and malaria, but most were handed paracetamol (acetaminophen) tablets and sent away. Four of the fourteen later died, as a result of inadequate emergency health care, their family members believe.
The island has no emergency medical care services. If referred by a doctor and permitted by the island authorities, refugees have to travel three hours by boat and then two hours by road to the nearest mainland hospital for emergency care. This includes pregnant women needing lifesaving medical intervention. A refugee who lost his wife during childbirth said that after complications, when doctors recommended moving her to a mainland hospital, getting permission took two hours, by which time she had died.
Refugees said that they were promised teachers, schools, and formal accredited education for their children on the island. However, an aid worker said that although an estimated 8,495 children are on Bhasan Char “at best four NGOs are providing education to no more than 1,500 children.”
Mizan, 35, said the education her 7- and 9-year-old daughters were receiving was actually less than in the camps: “We have been here now for six months and my daughters brought all their belongings, bags, and books, to continue studying, but there aren’t even learning centers here.”
With monsoon season due to start in June, the island is at risk from high winds and flooding. Embankments around the island are still likely inadequate to withstand a category three storm or worse. Although the government says that there are adequate storm shelters, there is the risk that refugees, Bangladeshi security personnel, and humanitarian workers, could end up marooned on the island with limited supplies as sea or air transport are restricted in inclement weather. The authorities stopped a recent relocation to Bhasan Char due to the bad weather.
“Putting unwilling refugees on a remote, low-lying island where cyclones are common is a bad idea,” Frelick said. “Rohingya refugees who have lost and suffered so much need to be treated with dignity and respect for their safety and well-being and be allowed to make informed, voluntary choices about their living conditions until long-term solutions can be found.”
Accounts by Refugees
All refugees quoted are identified by a pseudonym given the high risk of retribution by Bangladesh authorities for speaking out about the conditions on Bhasan Char.
Informed Consent, Freedom of Movement, Livelihoods
Taslima, who is living in Cox’s Bazar but whose 13-year-old son is on Bhasan Char after being rescued at sea in May 2020, said:
My son has been confined on Bhasan Char for one year. He is not even an adult. My son kept asking the navy officials to send him back to the camps, but every time he is given false promises. I also contacted the CiC [Camp-in-Charge, an administrator] here in the camp to get my son back but they said the only way I can meet my son is if I relocate to Bhasan Char. But my son keeps telling me not to go over there because it is like a jail.
Yusuf Ali, 43, who also lives in Cox’s Bazar and whose two daughters are being held on Bhasan Char, said, “the CiC told us that our daughters would never be returned to us here. They said ‘You still have time to choose to go there [to Bhasan Char], otherwise forget about your children.’”
Anjul, 40, a refugee on Bhasan Char, said:
They trapped us with promises of good food and plenty of livelihood opportunities, like tending livestock or fishing. Most important, when we boarded the bus they gave us 5,000 taka [US$60] each, promising that we would be given 5,000 taka each month. But after arriving, there are no such opportunities, and now we are facing a food shortage.
He said that when the refugees left for Bhasan Char, some officials falsely assured them that they would be able to travel freely between the island and mainland, but that was not happening. “My older parents are in the camps. I would at least want to attend their funeral,” he said. “But even that will not be possible as long as I am held here.”
Inadequate Health Care
Amdad’s 18-month-old daughter died of pneumonia less than a month after arriving on Bhasan Char. He said that the child had developed pneumonia while they were still in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, but there they were able to get oxygen at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital. He said that when they arrived on Bhasan Char, his daughter again began having trouble breathing, the doctors rebuffed his concerns:
[O]n March 11, [my daughter] was having the breathing problem again and I rushed her to the government healthcare facility here. The doctor prescribed a cough syrup and sent us back home, but she did not improve. The next morning, I took her to the healthcare facility again and requested that the doctor give her oxygen support since I could see the cylinder in his office, and she had received that cure back in the camps. I even tried to show him the prescription that the MSF doctors had provided for her, but he refused to look. He said to me, “Do you think we are sitting here with enough oxygen to support your daughter? I am giving her more medicines, she will be fine,” and asked us to leave the healthcare facility. Soon after I came back to my shelter, her situation deteriorated. After two hours my daughter died.
Amdad said that after his daughter died the authorities came to his shelter and took away all documentation of her medical history including documentation from MSF, and they refused to issue a death certificate.
The husband of Bibi, 58, died from complications after being denied respiratory support and asthma medication:
I took my husband to the healthcare facility here three to four times. They could not give proper treatment or medication. The last time I took him to the healthcare facility when his situation deteriorated again, I requested the medical staff to take us outside the island or take us back to Cox’s Bazar to go to the MSF hospital or Turkish hospital, but they did not allow it. Instead, they discharged my husband from the healthcare facility and said he would recover at home. He died the next morning.
Zubair, 62, who arrived on Bhasan Char in February, suffered from a stomach ulcer, digestive difficulties, and severe abdominal bloating. “While I was in the camp [in Cox’s Bazar], aid workers would come to my shelter to give health care because I am an older person and I cannot go to the healthcare facility on my own. Sometimes those volunteers helped take me to the MSF hospital or IOM hospital where I could get medicine or treatment, which would help most of the time.” But when Zubair went to the healthcare facility on Bhasan Char, the medicine they offered did not help. The health workers recommended that he be transferred to a hospital on the mainland, but that he would have to pay. He said:
I went to the healthcare facility here after 10 to 15 days of arrival with severe pain in the abdomen. The doctors here prescribed some medicines. When there was no progress and I was unable to move any more, family members and neighbors helped me to get to the healthcare facility twice. But the doctors gave me the same medicines. The last time I went to the healthcare facility, they told me to come up with the money to go to the hospital in Noakhali [on the mainland] as my situation had deteriorated very badly. I do not have my own money and I feel shy to ask for help from the neighbors. It’s better now I die here with my family.