About 300 Rohingya refugees who were taken to a Bay of Bengal island in May will be moved to Cox’s Bazar in mainland Bangladesh so they can be reunited with their relatives, a senior foreign ministry official told BenarNews on Friday.
Bangladesh took the 306 refugees – 186 women, 96 men, and 24 children – to Bhashan Char Island after they arrived six months ago on a dinghy in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. The government said they wanted to isolate them from other Rohingya living in sprawling and densely crowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district as a safeguard against the novel coronavirus.
“There has been a decision in principle that the Rohingya will be moved to Cox’s Bazar from Bhashan Char. But no date is fixed yet for the move,” M. Delwar Hossain, who heads the Rohingya wing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
International humanitarian organizations have for months been criticizing Bangladesh’s government for forcing those Rohingya to live on Bhashan Char.
A day before Hossain spoke to BenarNews, Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asian group, said the refugees were as good as detained on the island, which other rights groups say is not habitable.
“The government is detaining Rohingya men, women, and children on the island against their will,” Ismail Wolff of Fortify Rights said in a statement.
“The detainees’ communication with the outside world is also restricted, and some report beatings, abuse, and other ill-treatment. They are understandably desperate to be reunited with their families.”
Shamsuddouza Nayan, an additional commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation, denied that the refugees living on Bhashan were facing problems.
“They are doing fine there,” Nayan said.
Bangladesh has been housing 1.2 million Rohingya, who fled from neighboring Myanmar, in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar. Of those, more than 740,000 escaped a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, beginning in August 2017.
Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan Char
Meanwhile, Hossain also told BenarNews, 300 Rohingya families had agreed to move from Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan Char, in the first phase of a planned relocation of 100,000 refugees to the island.
“Though the relocation was supposed to start this month, no date is yet fixed,” he said.
A discussion is also underway among Bangladeshi authorities to send a United Nations delegation to Bhashan Char.
Human rights groups have raised dozens of issues that need addressing to make Bhashan Char safe for habitation, including protection from disasters including cyclones and tidal surges. They have been urging the government to allow United Nations experts to conduct an independent assessment of the island and ensure that any relocation there is voluntary.
On Thursday, Fortify Rights said the government must halt plans for relocations to the island until after independent appraisals that allow the refugees to make informed and voluntary decisions, the group said.
“Dhaka should urgently allow unfettered access to the island for humanitarian organizations, the United Nations, and human rights monitors,” Wolff said.
In September, Fortify Rights, along with Amnesty International, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Refugees International, and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, sent a private letter to Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen.
In it, they urged Bangladesh to allow the U.N. to conduct a protection assessment and review the sustainability and environmental conditions on the island. The groups also said Bangladesh must grant timely and “unfettered” access to human rights monitors.
The groups that wrote to Momen have not received a response, Fortify Rights said. The foreign secretary did not immediately respond to a query from BenarNews.
Bangladesh has insisted that any relocation to Bhashan Char would be voluntary.
In September, the country’s armed forces took 40 Rohingya leaders, representing 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, to the island to assess living conditions there.
The government had said it spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on the island. Authorities said the facilities on the island were better than in the refugee camps.
A Rohingya refugee leader in Cox’s Bazar said no one should be kept on, or moved to, Bhashan Char forcibly.
“We have no objection if those who are willing go there to Bhashan Char,” Master M. Ilias, Arakan Rohingya National Union Secretary, told BenarNews on Friday.
Those community leaders who had visited the island appreciated the infrastructure and houses that were built there, he said.
“But they couldn’t confirm whether the island is habitable or not. I think experts from the international community should be taken there and they should give their opinion on such a relocation,” Ilias said.
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