(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should halt relocations to Bhasan Char island until freedom of movement and other rights of Rohingya refugees are protected, Human Rights Watch said today. Refugees and humanitarian workers said the authorities have already identified hundreds of families in the mainland camps to be relocated, starting imminently.
These relocations would contravene the October 2021 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signed with the Bangladesh government establishing a framework for UN support for refugee operations on Bhasan Char. The government should ensure that the UN refugee agency can fully support and protect Rohingya refugees living on Bhasan Char island, Human Rights Watch said in a recent letter to donors. Donors should insist that Bangladesh fully halt relocations until UNHCR has developed a process for ensuring free and informed consent.
“Bangladesh’s October agreement with the UN doesn’t provide a free ticket to forcibly relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “On the contrary, donor governments will now be scrutinizing Bhasan Char to ensure their assistance doesn’t contribute to abuses.”
Bangladesh authorities have already moved nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees to the remote, flood-prone island, claiming that the relocations were necessary to ease the overcrowding in the Cox’s Bazar camps. Many refugees were transferred to the island without full, informed consent, and have been prevented from returning to the mainland.
While the agreement permits the UN to have a presence on Bhasan Char, serious concerns remain regarding the island’s safety, as well as the processes through which fundamental principles such as informed consent and freedom of movement will be upheld.
In mid-November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 refugees, community leaders, and humanitarian workers in the Cox’s Bazar camps on the mainland. They said that camp officials and government security agencies are coercing Rohingya community leaders, called majhis, to persuade other refugees to relocate, including by confiscating their identity documents. One majhi told Human Rights Watch:
“During the meeting, the CiC [camp-in-charge, a Bangladeshi official] specifically asked us to select big families, families who were affected by the landslides or floods or recent fires, and submit the list. He said he will do a lottery. The families that come out of the lottery, they will need to go [to Bhasan Char]. No option, no mercy.”
He said he didn’t agree with such policies but felt bound to enforce them due to his role:
“People in my block or camp trust me. Even though the authorities are kicking my community around for nothing, I can’t say anything or protest. It feels bad. But there is nothing I can do.”
Another majhi said that he had been told to mislead the refugees: “We are told not to mention anything about Bhasan Char if we are asked by the refugees, and instead say that good news is awaiting them.”
Another said he did not tell anyone why he was collecting their family data card:
“Later, the families reached out to me saying that if their names will be on the list for relocation to Bhasan Char, they would not go, and would rather die in the camp. We have fallen into a situation where we have to follow the instructions from the CiCs, but we know for sure these people have not agreed to relocate to Bhasan Char, as now most of them have already heard about the conditions on that island.”
Eleven refugees told Human Rights Watch that they had already given their family attestation number or been asked to do so. One man said they were threatened: “If families resisted, the majhis became angry and threatened stern action. He warned that the CiC had said that those who refused to hand over their FCN [family counting number] cards would face problems. We don’t know what sort of problems we’d have to face.”
At least three officials with international humanitarian agencies confirmed that the majhis have been collecting FCN cards, and in some cases their smart cards, for possible relocation to Bhasan Char. Some majhis and Bangladeshi intelligence officials had even threatened people or demanded bribes.
The 20,000 refugees on Bhasan Char have faced severe movement restrictions, food shortages, abuses by security forces, and inadequate education, health care, and livelihood opportunities. Hundreds have attempted to escape, some even drowning in the process, while those caught have been detained and beaten.
The agreement with UNHCR does not indicate how refugees will be identified for relocation or the measures to be taken to ensure that their decisions are fully informed and voluntary.
Governments should condition any funding for Bhasan Char on the Bangladesh government meeting specific benchmarks, including ensuring free and informed consent; freedom of movement on Bhasan Char and off the island; a technical assessment of safety and habitability; and access to health care, education, and livelihoods, Human Rights Watch said.
The agreement indicates that movement between Bhasan Char and the mainland camps will be restricted on an unspecified “needs basis,” raising concerns that the status quo policy, which has already had deadly impact, will continue. Refugees currently require a series of extensive permissions to leave the island, even in case of medical emergency, a lengthy process that has in some instances delayed access to urgent care and led to preventable deaths.
Rohingya on Bhasan Char have reported increasing health concerns that have gone untreated or inadequately treated, including an outbreak of pneumonia among children. With growing numbers of Rohingya attempting to leave the island, even since the agreement was signed, the authorities are allegedly refusing permission to leave for serious health conditions, despite inadequate facilities and care. Refugees on Bhasan Char said that over the last two months, five Rohingya have died after being denied permission to get treatment on the mainland.
Donors should urge the Bangladesh government to end existing movement restrictions and ensure full freedom of movement around the island and between the island and mainland. A system should be developed to provide effective remedy to the 20,000 Rohingya refugees who have been moved to Bhasan Char, including by urgently allowing any who wish to return to the camps in Cox’s Bazar to do so and by providing restitution to those who were forcibly relocated.
The UN, other implementing agencies, and donors should have full access to monitor the situation, to ensure that the agreement is being carried out and provide transparency and accountability by publicly reporting on progress made under the agreement, Human Rights Watch said.
“If Rohingya refugees aren’t allowed to freely travel from Bhasan Char to the mainland, even for medical emergencies, the island will effectively remain a prison,” Frelick said. “Donors should weigh in at this critical juncture to ensure that the Rohingya are protected, and their rights upheld.”