A man climbs through barbed wire fencing at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as a massive fire swept through the camps on March 22, 2021. © 2021 Private

In late May, thousands of Rohingya refugees whom Bangladesh authorities had relocated to remote Bhasan Char island broke out of their shelters during a visit by United Nations representatives. “We don’t want to live here,” they chanted.

The protests indicate the extent of the problems on the silt island in the Bay of Bengal, where nearly 20,000 Rohingya, including over 8,000 children, have been moved in recent months from the refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar.

In research by Human Rights Watch for a new report, refugees described being lured to the island with false promises of adequate food and livelihood, monthly cash assistance and access to proper health care and schools. A recent cyclone that missed the island still caused strong winds and some flooding there, leading refugees to fear for their safety in the face of the upcoming monsoon season.

Many concerns

On May 31, the refugees protested during a meeting with a visiting high-level delegation from United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN refugee agency, to share their concerns about conditions on the island. Bangladeshi security forces had warned them to stay inside, but if asked, to only praise the arrangements on the island. They had complied with such orders during previous visits by foreign officials, but this time many of the refugees grew desperate and surged forward, only to be beaten back by the police.

“The Rohingya who are there became unruly the moment the UNHCR representatives landed [on the island] by helicopter today,” the local police chief, Alamgir Hossain, told AFP. “They came at the police...Their demand is they don’t want to live here.”

UNHCR issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” that refugees, including women and children, were injured. The government blamed international media and civil society organizations for opposing Bhasan Char relocations to “undermine the magnanimous humanitarian gestures and the sincere efforts of Bangladesh”.

After the delegation had left, Bangladeshi officials threatened the refugees. “You all are finished,” one refugee says an official told him.

How did it come to this?

The Bangladesh government deserves praise for opening its borders in August 2017 to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who were fleeing the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, including crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Bangladeshis responded with an outpouring of sympathy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina committed to help, saying that if the country could afford to feed its 160 million people, it could provide for the additional refugees as well.

“If necessary, we will eat one meal a day and share another meal with these distressed people,” she said.

Now, after more than three years, and with nearly a million refugees crowded into the settlement in Cox’s Bazaar, that warm welcome is fast fading.

Myanmar has shown no signs that it will create conditions for the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of the refugees. Its failure to take any meaningful actions to address recent atrocities against the Rohingya or put an end to the decades-long discrimination and repression against the remaining population in the country, including the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, is at the root of delays and failures in refugee repatriation.

Instead, since the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021, the country is fully controlled by the same generals who led the campaign of mass atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017, making the prospect of a safe and dignified return ever more distant. Since the coup, the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has said that Myanmar will not repatriate people whom they do not consider its citizens.

Heavy-handed tactics

This is increasingly vexing the Bangladesh host community. In what appears to be an effort to show that the Rohingya refugees are temporary residents, the authorities have denied Rohingya the right to build permanent housing, restricted their movement by erecting barbed-wire fencing, and denied their children any access to formal education.

The Bangladesh government, resorting to heavy-handed tactics, has not stopped its security forces from committing serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, against any Rohingya suspected of crimes. Access to the internet and telecommunications was blocked for nearly a year after the refugees had staged large demonstrations in the camps to demand their right to return to Myanmar.

The Bangladesh government is frustrated by having been left to shoulder the refugee burden alone. Malaysia, Thailand, and India have all attempted to push refugees that turn up at their coasts or borders back to Bangladesh. “Has Bangladesh been given the global contract and responsibility to take and rehabilitate all the Rohingya or boat people of the world?” said Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen last February. “No, not at all.”

In May 2020, after Bangladesh authorities rescued about 600 Rohingya refugees who had been stranded at sea, they detained over 300 of them on Bhasan Char instead of reuniting them with their families in the refugee camps. The government has ignored refugee pleas to return to the mainland, and stalled UN officials who sought visits to assess their protection needs.

Bangladesh says it has invested up to $300 million to develop infrastructure on the island. But the government broke its promise to first accept an independent assessment of technical and protection needs on Bhasan Char, and to act on the report’s recommendations, before starting any voluntary relocation. Instead, since December the government has brought thousands of Rohingya refuges from the camps to Bhasan Char.

Bangladeshi officials told Human Rights Watch in December 2020 that the relocations were voluntary, and claimed that “the 13,000-acre island has year-round fresh water, an uninterrupted supply of electricity, agricultural plots, cyclone shelters, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, a police station, recreation and learning centers, playgrounds and more”.

The refugees, who generally agreed that the shelters and open areas on Bhasan Char were better than in the mainland camps, said though that there were only informal classes for young children instead of proper schools, and that the healthcare services were inadequate. Of the 14 people we interviewed about their health needs, four had passed away by the time we published our report. Family members said they died because of a lack of proper medical care. One man said his wife died in childbirth because he could not get permission in time to transfer her to a hospital on the mainland, which is three hours away by boat followed by a two-hour drive.

The refugees also described food shortages. Without proper livelihood opportunities, they said they did not have the money to supplement their rations or afford fish, which is their staple. Whether the move to Bhasan Char was voluntary is also in question. Several refugees said that they had no idea how they had ended up on the lists to be relocated or that the authorities had made false promises as they compelled the refugees to relocate.

Scores have started fleeing Bhasan Char. Those caught escaping have been detained and beaten by security forces.

The Bangladesh authorities know there are shortcomings on Bhasan Char and it is not quite the “beautiful resort”, they once claimed. But instead of waiting to conduct proper consultations to assess the island’s emergency preparedness, habitability, and safety, the government sought to present the United Nations and international donors with a cruel fait accompli, putting pressure on them to start supporting the refugees on the island or take responsibility for the consequences. What is more, the authorities are still stalling on policy and technical dialogue with agencies and donors about humanitarian operations.

The government says that any “undue criticism” of its temporary arrangements for the Rohingya refugees “will only shift the focus from the permanent solution, which lies in repatriation and reintegration of Rohingyas in Myanmar”.

While there is no doubt that the international community should do much more to ensure that the Rohingya can safely return to Myanmar with justice and dignity, the Bangladesh government should also accept that it needs to protect the rights of the refugees in its care.

Bhasan Char should first be thoroughly and professionally assessed and deemed safe – with proper emergency and logistical response preparations– for refugees, for humanitarian workers, as well as for the Bangladeshi officials and security personnel who support them. There needs to be a civilian governance structure. Relocations from mainland camps should be fully informed and voluntary. This means that the Bangladesh authorities should allow any refugee who wants to return to Cox’s Bazar to do so.

With the monsoon fast approaching, the Bangladesh government should stop stalling, and once again focus on securing Rohingya refugee lives.