Questions Surround UN Agency’s Role in Bangladesh ‘Prison-Island’ for Rohingya Refugees

The United Nations refugee agency is set to begin aid operations in support of ethnic Rohingyas on a remote Bangladeshi island where more than 20,000 Rohingya refugees have been relocated by the Bangladesh government. The refugees, relocated to the Bay of Bengal island of Bhasan Char, have over the past year complained of poor food and living conditions, among other grievances.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Bangladesh government agreed earlier this month to work together to support the refugees, but the arrangement has not been made public.

Some Rohingya from the island said they welcome the U.N. agency on the island. But others said the island will remain “unlivable” even after the UNHCR starts its operations there.

Rights groups have often called Bhasan Char a “prison-island” for refugees. They have urged the UNHCR and the government to publicly release details of the agreement so that others can monitor compliance with its terms.

The Bangladesh government set up the Bhasan Char facility to house about 100,000 Rohingya refugees, saying it was anxious to ease congestion in Cox’s Bazar, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugee fled amid a Burmese military campaign in 2017.

But rights groups have long argued the island, formed naturally by Himalayan silt, is vulnerable to natural disasters and is not suitable for human settlement.

Since their arrival on Bhasan Char, the refugees have complained they are living in jail-like conditions, with very poor amenities. In recent months, some 400 refugees have been caught by police while attempting to flee the island. Scores of others managed to escape back to Cox’s Bazar.

Now, amid news the UNHCR will begin providing services on Bhasan Char, some Rohingya on the island say they are happy.

“Our lifestyle will certainly improve when UNHCR comes here. We will get good rations. Our children will get a good education. The agency will also give us some jobs,” Mohammad Raihan, 20, who moved to Bhasan Char earlier this year, told VOA.

Another Rohingya on the island echoed Raihan’s views.

“Sometimes the police harass Rohingya refugees. If UNHCR is present here, the police will not be able to harass us,” said a 36-year-old Rohingya who does not want to be identified, fearing reprisal from police.

“UNHCR will help us get very good medical facilities, too,” the refugee told VOA.

Some other Rohingyas, though, said Bhasan Char will remain unlivable even after the UNHCR starts its operations there.

“Rohingyas who are in Bhasan Char now have seen how the island sinks under the sea during high tide. Heavy rain and tsunami can drown the island completely, and all Rohingyas there will get killed,” said a 36-year-old Rohingya man who fled Bhasan Char and returned to a mainland camp a few weeks ago in Cox’s Bazar. He spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested and forcibly returned to Bhasan Char.

“Rohingyas are desperately trying to flee Bhasan Char. Will the UNHCR be able to save the lives of the island’s Rohingyas in cases of big natural disasters?”

Many Rohingyas compare the Bhasan Char facility to a prison.

“Almost all Rohingyas in Bhasan Char have their relatives in Cox’s Bazar. But they are not allowed to leave the island to visit their relatives. Whatever amenities you provide on Bhasan Char, most Rohingyas there will feel they are trapped in a prison there,” said a Rohingya man in Cox’s Bazar who does not want to be identified, fearing reprisal from the government.

Bangladesh has announced it has a plan to relocate 80,000 more refugees to Bhasan Char over the next few months.

After the agreement between the UNHCR and Bangladesh government was signed, Regina de la Portilla, UNHCR communication officer in Cox’s Bazar, told VOA in an emailed statement the U.N. agency’s services on the island “will be tailored to cover basic needs and essential services such as food, nutrition, health, water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as protection, education, skills development and livelihood opportunities, among others.”

Global rights groups have said the agreement between UNHCR and government of Bangladesh should be made public.

“UNHCR and the government of Bangladesh should publicly release their agreement so that everyone, most especially the Rohingya refugees themselves, can see what has been promised about the future situation on Bhasan Char,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

“Without clarity on what the two sides have agreed on, it’s hard to assess what the future holds for those stuck on Bhasan Char, who have so far faced separation from families, lack of adequate food and medical services, no access to livelihoods, and physical abuses and torture by Bangladesh security personnel on the island.”

VOA has seen a leaked copy of the agreement between the UNHCR and government of Bangladesh, which offers no guarantee that the refugees from the island will be allowed to move freely to the mainland.

While noting that his organization obtained and reviewed a copy of the agreement, Ismail Wolff, Bangkok-based regional director of Fortify Rights, said in a statement “the U.N. and Dhaka should revise their MoU [Memorandum of Understanding], “especially a provision outlining restrictions on freedom of movement [of the refugees].”

“UNHCR’s lifesaving services are essential and needed on the island, but the agency must ensure it is not propping up a refugee prison with this agreement,” Wolff said.

Robertson of HRW added that the principle of freedom movement is “really sacrosanct and needs to be part of any agreement.”

“Refugees should not be forced to go to the island, and they should be free to leave the island and return if they desire. UNHCR needs to have constant, unfettered access to the refugees on the island, so they are able to monitor conditions and protect the rights of the refugees there. And the international community and donors need to be alert and ready to press Bangladesh to uphold rights of refugees in all circumstances,” Robertson said.

Source: Voice of America