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Stuck In the Middle of the Sea: Rohingya Refugees on Bhasan Char

December 29, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In late May, thousands of Rohingya refugees, who were relocated to Bhasan Char island in the Hatiya Upazila of Bangladesh, marched out of their shelters when they were visited by United Nations representatives. “We don’t want to live here,” they chanted.

The protest was a response to the many injustices they were experiencing in the remote slit island, where nearly 20,000 Rohingyas, including 8,000 children, have been relocated from the settlements in Cox’s Bazar since December 2020.

Despite Bhasan Char being the most touted solution by Bangladesh to resolve the growing population of refugees in Cox’s Bazar, it is an unsafe, uncertain, and unstable place. Formed only in the last 20 years by silt deposit in the delta, its shape and shorelines have repeatedly shifted. During severe weather, the island is cut off from the rest of the world, which makes evacuation difficult, if not impossible.

Ever since the start of infrastructure developments in 2017, humanitarian workers have been concerned about the unstable security of the refugees in Bhasan Char. In response to the concerns, Bangladesh had promised the United Nations to allow inspections of the situation on Bhasan Char by independent humanitarian teams before officially relocating the Rohingya refugees. However, Bangladesh revoked that deal and relocated thousands of refugees while further refusing any chance of inspection.

After pressuring the Bangladeshi government to comply with the international demand to survey the conditions on that island, the UN organized a four-day visit to the island by an 18-member team. It was during that visit that revealed many secrets the Bangladeshi officials have been trying to hide and the reason they denied inspections in the first place. According to the Human Rights Watch report, the refugees told them the authorities had warned them against complaining. Only a selected few were allowed to meet the team. During a follow-up UN visit in May 2021, thousands of refugees protested and complained that they were “badly beaten” by security forces.

While the Bangladeshi authorities argued that the relocation of the Rohingya refugees was entirely voluntary, 167 interviews of refugees along with humanitarian experts and donors revealed that, in fact, the government had misled them with false promises about the conditions on Bhasan Char. Some were even forced to migrate. There’s no fulfillment in being surrounded by four walls when there are food shortages and inadequate healthcare services. To maintain the refugees’ temporary residential status, Bangladesh also denied them formal education and standard livelihood opportunities.

“They lured us with the promise of good food and good healthcare facilities. We are old people. We came here so we could work and earn a living and would no longer need others to support us. But after coming here, I find that we are not given proper health care, good medication, or proper utilities. Even the rice we are provided is not enough. The health center is far away from our shelter, where we need to go on foot. I have gone to the health center more than four times, but they don’t prescribe proper medication.” Azra, 65, told Human Rights Watch.

Instead of improving the conditions on Bhasan Char, authorities continue to crack down on refugees who speak out or try to flee the island. The security forces are so restrictive that refugees are not even allowed to leave their assigned compounds. Anyone who attempts to step out is met with exceptional physical abuse. Prejudiced and restrictive behavior of authorities creates a culture of violence among the general public. In April of 2021, the Human Rights Watch reported that many have witnessed a Bangladeshi sailor beat a group of children with a hard-plastic PVC pipe for crossing into another block to play with other children.

Bangladesh’s generosity in accepting thousands of refugees must be acknowledged and applauded. While its neighbors--India, Thailand, and Malaysia--have all attempted to push refugees that turn up at their coasts or borders back to Bangladesh, Bangladesh accepted them. However, one’s gratitude must not come at the cost of one’s autonomy. All refugees have the right to food, healthcare, education, security, and human dignity.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her commitment to the Rohingya refugees, once said, “If necessary, we will eat one meal a day and share another meal with these distressed people.” Where is that conviction now that we are, as a nation, challenged by reality as more and more refugees are displaced? While it is normal to consider the state’s interests, it is also imperative to follow one’s nature to uphold justice without being clouded by political agendas.

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