A controversial refugee settlement set up by the Bangladesh government on the island of Bhasan Char has been under intense scrutiny since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic because of claims by government officials that refugees confined to the site are being kept there as a Covid-19 quarantine measure. This scrutiny has intensified after women refugees reported experiencing sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of police and military officials. “One or two security personnel were caught by the Rohingya men after they raped a young, unmarried girl,” reported one woman. “The girl cried out badly and alerted the Rohingya men who lived in the same area. But we have no way to know if any police case was registered.” Speaking to The Guardian, several women reported that while female officers provided protection, no female officers were on duty overnight.
More than 300 Rohingya refugees remain confined in prison-like facilities on the remote island. Despite the government’s claim that the refugees were placed there as a quarantine measure, the group has been confined since April–far exceeding the recommended 14-day quarantine time frame. Additionally, officials have announced plans to relocate some 103,200 refugees to the island where groups of up to five people are reported to share rooms of just 50 square feet (enough room for one person). According to Amnesty International, rooms are located in sheds, each of which contains 16 units but just two toilets. Refugees report that they are prevented from leaving the sheds in which they are housed. On 5 September, the government arranged a three-day visit to the island for 40 refugees–amongst whom were camp leaders–so that they could explore the new facility. In speaking to some of the group, Human Rights Watch heard numerous concerns including a lack of medical facilities, lack of livelihood opportunities, and worries regarding safety during the monsoon season.
Responding to the GDP’s Covid-19 survey in July 2020, just as criticism over Bhasan Char grew increasingly heated, an IOM official in Bangladesh reported that the country had not instituted any particular policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, although he said that “for those who become irregular their status (would be) regularized with extensions of 3 months.” The IOM official added that the country did not have immigration detention and that questions concerning Covid-19 measures taken in facilities were thus not applicable. The source explained that immigration “measures are generally pecuniary punishment (fine).”
As the source did not mention the Bhasan Char situation or the plight of boat people being returned to Bangladesh, the GDP reached out to him for additional comment. He replied: “Your e-mail and survey shared by our team as per relevance to work of border management agencies and coordinated with our immigration and border management team and questions in surveys interpreted as regular and irregular migrants rather than refugees/Rohingya populations. When it comes to Bhasan Char and Refugees the answers will be different as there are different regime and practices by Govt of Bangladesh as well as different agencies are involved in this process. So the answers provided were covered only immigration detention.”
- Refugees held on Bhasan Char island protesting to return to Cox’s Bazar during a 3-day “go and see visit” to the island for 40 refugees from the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 5, 2020 (Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh: Reunify Rohingya Refugee Families,” 15 September 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/15/bangladesh-reunify-rohingya-refugee-families)
- International Organisation for Migration-IOM (Emrah Guler), GDP Covid-19 Survey. 18 July 2020.
- Emrah Guler (International Organisation for Migration), Email to Michael Flynn (Global Detention Project), 21 July 2020.
- H. Ellis-Petersen and S. A. Rahman, “Rohingya Refugees Allege Sexual Assault on Bangladeshi Island,” The Guardian, 22 September 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/22/rohingya-refugees-allege-sexual-assault-on-bangladeshi-island
- Amnesty International, “Let Us Speak For Our Rights: Human Rights Situation of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh,” September 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ASA1328842020ENGLISH.PDF
- Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh: Reunify Rohingya Refugee Families,” 15 September 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/15/bangladesh-reunify-rohingya-refugee-families