A new report by an international NGO alleges that Dhaka has falsely promised Bangladeshi citizenship to Rohingya refugees who move to Bhashan Char, a remote and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, a claim that the government on Thursday rejected as untrue.
Bangladesh is focused on repatriating Rohingya to neighboring Myanmar, said Delwar Hossain, director general of the Myanmar wing at the foreign ministry, while he dismissed the report by Refugees International as containing false allegations.
“In recent weeks, Refugees International has received credible reports that camp officials have falsely promised payments and Bangladeshi citizenship to the Rohingya who relocate to the island,” the U.S.-based NGO said in the report it released on Thursday.
“Other refugees report ‘volunteering’ to be relocated only after being offered amnesty from pending criminal charges.”
Hossain said only Rohingya who want to move voluntarily are transferred to Bhashan Char.
“This is totally a lie that we have promised the Rohingya people Bangladeshi citizenship for their relocation to Bhashan Char. Why would we offer the Myanmar people Bangladeshi citizenship?” Hossain said to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. We do not have a shortage of population. The government’s principal focus is the early return of the Rohingya to their homeland in Myanmar.”
Hossain also denied that Bangladesh offers to waive criminal charges against Rohingya who have them, in exchange for moving offshore.
“There is no link between relocation to Bhashan Char and exemption of the criminal charges of the Rohingya. Persons committing criminal charges must face trial no matter where they stay or live. This is also a false claim,” Hossain said.
According to him, the 18,000 or so refugees who relocated to the island did so voluntarily.
The program to transfer refugees to Bhashan Char is aimed mainly at “decongesting the overcrowded camps in Ukhia and Teknaf,” Hossain said, referring to the refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, where around 1 million Rohingya are sheltering.
BenarNews spoke to some Rohingya who had moved to Bhashan Char. They denied that Bangladesh had promised them citizenship or offered to waive any criminal charges, in exchange for moving to the island.
The Rohingya who moved were, however, told they would get a monthly allowance if they relocated to Bhashan Char, said Nurul Islam, a Rohingya leader on the island.
“Each of the Rohingya family was given Tk 5,000 [U.S. $59] when we relocated. But we are not getting that promised money anymore,” Islam told BenarNews.
However, Daniel P. Sullivan, who authored the Refugees International report, said he had heard about Bangladesh’s purported incentives for the Rohingya to move to Bhashan Char from credible contacts in the South Asian nation.
“For reasons of safety and confidentiality, I am unable to identify the sources of these reports, but can say that they come from trusted contacts who have heard directly from refugees,” Sullivan told BenarNews.
“I can also say that in previous visits to the camps in 2019, I had heard similar reports directly from Rohingya refugees saying that they had been offered money or Bangladeshi citizenship if they agreed to move to Bhashan Char.”
Bhashan Char ‘least-worst option’
In general, Rohingya who decide to move to the island are choosing between a bad and worse option, according to the report by Refugees International, titled “Fading Humanitarianism: The Dangerous Trajectory of the Rohingya Refugee Response in Bangladesh.”
“More generally, decisions to relocate seem to be based on calculations of a least-worst option compared to conditions and insecurity in the camps,” the 15-page report said.
According to the NGO, extortion, threats, kidnappings, and killings have risen in the crowded mainland camps.
“The networks behind these activities remain murky, but include a mix of gangs, drug traffickers, and those claiming links to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA),” the report said, referring to an organization that Myanmar has declared a “terrorist” group.
“A humanitarian worker described the growing influence of these illicit groups as ‘the massive unspoken thing.’ One refugee told Refugees International that the influence of criminal groups, especially at night, is so great that, ‘to be honest, there are two governments [in the camps].’”
Bangladesh has, in response, put up barbed-wire fencing around the main camp for security purposes, the NGO noted. This fence endangered Rohingya when a huge fire broke out on one of the camps in March, according to Refugees International and other rights groups.
Back in March, Bangladesh had denied that the fence was the reason at least 11 people perished in the fire. High wind speeds made it difficult to douse the fire quickly, an official had said.
“We have built a barbed-wire fence for ensuring physical safety of the Rohingya. The criminals used to infiltrate the camps and abduct people,” Hossain said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has yet to assess the island for livability, Refugees International noted.
Without such an assessment, the Rohingya lack enough information to agree to move, Sullivan, the report’s author, said.
“[T]here are too many unanswered questions about the safety and feasibility of hosting refugees on the island to provide for informed consent,” he told BenarNews.
“These questions include what services refugees on the island could access and how (including a current lack of protection services and medical services beyond primary care) and whether refugees would have the freedom of movement back to the main camps.”
According to Hossain, after a U.N. refugee agency delegation visited the island in March, officials have had several meetings with officials from the UNHCR office in Dhaka on starting work to assess Bhashan Char.
“Last week, we had a meeting with U.N. officials regarding the assessment. I hope the U.N. will start operating in Bhashan Char after they complete the assessment,” he said.
UNHCR did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on the Refugees International report.
The NGO said that the conditions in Rohingya camps declined in the past year even as prospects for repatriation grew bleaker after the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar.
Yet, Bangladesh has continued to say that repatriation of the Rohingya is the ultimate goal, Refugees International said.
“Bangladeshi authorities have insisted on the repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar as the only solution to the refugee crisis and prevented medium- to long-term planning around the humanitarian response,” the NGO noted in its report.
“[T]he government of Bangladesh has refused to recognize Rohingya as refugees and to grant them access to education, livelihoods, and the legal system.”
Radio Free Asia --Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036Radio Free Europe--Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.