24 September 2020
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
10 July 2020
On 9 July 2020, Human Rights Watch urged Bangladeshi authorities to immediately move more than 300 Rohingya refugees, including 33 children, from the silt island of Bhasan Char to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps to join their families. Despite inviting UNHCR and other UN agencies to Bhasan Char island, the Bangladesh government is yet to allow UN officials to provide protection services and aid to refugees detained on Bhasan Char, who had been stranded at sea for several weeks. As of 19 June, discussions on the parameters of the visit were ongoing.
Bangladeshi authorities stated that the rescued refugees had to be temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to avoid spreading Covid-19 amongst the crowded camps. Yet, more than two months later, the refugees remain on the island despite calls from UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres to return them to refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Human Rights Watch Asia Director, Brad Adam, said that “Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return… The government is inexplicably delaying aid workers’ access to support the refugees with immediate care, and refusing to reunite them with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.”
Families in Cox’s Bazar have told Human Rights Watch that their relatives on Bhasan Char are being held without freedom of movement, adequate access to food or medical care, and face severe shortages of safe drinking water. In addition, certain refugees have alleged that they were beaten and ill-treated by Bangladesh authorities on the island.
Humanitarian experts have repeatedly raised concerns over the habitability and conditions on the island. After her visit to the island in January 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, questioned whether the island was “truly habitable.” Bangladesh authorities assured that no refugees would be involuntarily relocated to Bhasan Char, saying that the government would await a green signal from UN agencies and independent experts. The senior secretary of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Ministry told the Media on 30 October 2019 that “UN agencies will conduct a technical assessment regarding the safety issues in the island … and we will not start the relocation without any clearance from the UN agencies.” Nonetheless, the government has gone back on this promise by refusing to return the refugees to their families, preventing UN agencies from visiting the refugees to provide protection, medical and verification services, and also by refusing to allow UN agencies access to the island to conduct a transparent assessment of its habitability.
At the same time, Myanmar has yet to take concrete steps to enable safe and voluntary returns. Human Rights Watch urged donors and concerned governments to insist that the Myanmar government and military ensure the security and basic rights of Rohingya, ensure unhindered access for international humanitarian agencies to provide resources and monitor rights, and provide full citizenship for the Rohingya, with all accompanying rights and protections.
- Human Rights Watch, “Bangladesh: Move Rohingya from Dangerous Silt Island,” 9 July 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/09/bangladesh-move-rohingya-dangerous-silt-island
- United News of Bangladesh, “UN Agencies Invited to Assess Bhasan Char Situation,” 19 June 2020, https://www.newagebd.net/article/108826/un-agencies-invited-to-assess-bhasan-char-situation
- An Aerial View of the Bhasan Char Refugee Island Camp, (M. Ahmed & R. Beings, "Critical Analysis On Why the Island Experiment of Bhasan Char is Not an Option for Rohingya Refugees," The Rohingya Post, 8 May 2020, https://www.rohingyapost.com/critical-analysis-on-why-the-island-experiment-of-bhasan-char-is-not-an-option-for-rohingya-refugees/)
27 April 2020
More than 500 people - including children - have been stranded on two fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal, after Bangladesh refused to allow the refugees to come ashore. Last week, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister announced that the boats would not be allowed to dock, adding that in light of the Covid-19 pandemic the country could not take responsibility for any new refugees. Urging Bangladesh to open its ports, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights decried the situation as a “human tragedy of terrible proportions.” Meanwhile, in a statement released on 25 April, Human Rights Watch said that “the pandemic cannot justify a blanket ban such as Bangladesh’s refusal to allow any Rohingya now or in the future to disembark. Forcing them to remain on the boat also risks their right to health.”
On 8 April, Bangladesh announced the lockdown of Cox’s Bazar, the country’s southern district where more than 855,000 Rohingya refugees live in overcrowded refugee camps. (Population density inside the camps is more than 40 times the average density elsewhere in Bangladesh.) The chief of the district’s administration stated that entry and exit from the region would be prohibited, and that stringent legal action would be taken against those violating the order. Police and soldiers reportedly set up roadblocks on main roads within the district, and conduct patrols inside and outside camps. With government bans on mobile phone and internet use in the camps still in place, many refugees continue to lack access to important public health messaging.
- R. Ratcliffe, “Bangladesh Urged to Open Ports to Allow Rohingya Refugee Boats,” The Guardian, 27 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/bangladesh-urged-to-open-ports-to-allow-in-rohingya-refugee-boats
- Al Jazeera, “Bangladesh: Cox’s Bazar Under Lockdown Over Coronavirus Fear,” 8 April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/bangladesh-cox-bazar-lockdown-coronavirus-fear-200408143957472.html
- RFI, “Rohingya Camps in Bangladesh Under Complete Virus Lockdown,” 9 April 2020, http://www.rfi.fr/en/international/20200409-rohingya-camps-in-bangladesh-in-complete-coronavirus-lockdown-risk-spread-covid-19
- UNHCR, “‘If Covid-19 Arrives in the Camp, It Will Be Devastating,’” 21 April 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2020/4/5e9ead964/covid-19-arrives-camp-devastating.html
- A Boat Carrying Suspected Rohingya Refugees Off the Island of Langkawi in Malaysia, (Maritime Enforcement Agency Handout, EPA, R. Ratcliffe, “Bangladesh Urged to Open Ports to Allow Rohingya Refugee Boats,” The Guardian, 27 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/bangladesh-urged-to-open-ports-to-allow-in-rohingya-refugee-boats)
03 April 2020
There are critical concerns about the risk of infection spreading uncontrollably in the overcrowded camps and other facilities used to house the some one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Human rights groups issued a joint letter on 1 April commending the government “for working closely with the humanitarian community on COVID-19 preparedness and response in Cox’s Bazar District, including efforts to establish isolation and treatment facilities.” However the groups pleaded with authorities to stop building barbed wire fencing around camps and to restrict mobile internet connections because these “measures threaten the safety and well-being of the refugees as well as Bangladesh host communities and aid workers, in light of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Separately, the Banglsdeshi Inspector General of Prisons has advised that newly arrived prisoners are to be kept isolated for a period of 14 days prior to joining the general population. He also stated that prisoners already serving time are being checked one by one in every prison of the country. The Inspector also stated that, while plans to release prisoners convicted of minor offences, such as Iran, had been discussed, they are not currently being envisaged.
It is thus far unclear if there are specific measures being taken to safeguard immigration-related detainees.
- Human Rights Watch, “Joint Letter Re: Restrictions on Communication, Fencing, and COVID-19 in Cox’s Bazar District Rohingya Refugee Camps,” 1 April 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/01/joint-letter-re-restrictions-communication-fencing-and-covid-19-coxs-bazar-district
- Al Jazeera, “Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh at Risk of COVID-19 Infection,” 30 March 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/rohingya-refugees-bangladesh-risk-covid-19-infection-200330124605721.html
- A. Alif, “Are Bangladesh’s Cramped Prisons Safe from Coronavirus?” Dhaka Tribune, 15 March 2020, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/03/15/are-bangladesh-s-cramped-prisons-safe-from-coronavirus