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Rohingya refugees quarantined on Bangladesh island 'unfit for habitation'

An aerial map of the Rohingya settlement on Bhasan Char [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 May, 2020

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Bangladesh has quarantined 29 Rohingya refugees on an unstable silt island where they have little access to aid, after being stranded at sea for two months, says Human Rights Watch.
Bangladeshi authorities have confined dozens of Rohingya refugees to an "unlivable" island off its coast with little access to vital aid, claiming they must be quarantined there to avoid spreading coronavirus in its overcrowded camps.

According to Human Rights Watch, the 29 refugees are stuck on Bhasan Char, also known as "floating island", after being stranded at sea for over two months.

As well as requiring urgent food, water and medical aid, the group is also at risk from severe weather, including cyclones and flooding.

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said on Saturday that the group were Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar and attempting to reach Malaysia. However HRW says it had interviewed families who said that at least seven of those being held were registered refugees in Bangladesh.

Read also: In-depth: For Rohingya refugees, Ramadan under lockdown offers little respite from hardships of life

Momen added that 10,000 Rohingya, as well as all future arrivals, will be transferred to Bhasan Char despite UN officials voicing concerns about whether the island is fit for habitation.

The island has no access to humanitarian aid provided by the UN or other agencies, while part of the island is thought to be eroded by monsoon every year.

Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director, said: "Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of Covid-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution."

"Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland," he added.

Those currently detained on Bhasan Char are thought to have been among the estimated 700 passengers on two fishing boats stranded in the Bay of Bengal for two months after being intercepted by the Bangladeshi coastguard on its way to Malaysia.

Early on Saturday morning, at least 50 of the boats' passengers were transferred to smaller boats and taken to the coast after paying a ransom to smugglers. Many of them were able to reach the camps, but authorities captured 29.

Last month, the Bangladeshi coast guard rescued a boat of around 390 Rohingya refugees that had been stranded for nearly two months after being refused entry to Malaysia. The refugees, most of whom were under 20 years old, told Doctors Without Borders (MSF) that hundreds had died on board and had to be thrown into the sea.

Bangladesh is host to some 900,000 Rohingya who have fled government atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. However, the Bangladeshi government says its camps are full and cannot take in more refugees.

HRW called on the Bangladeshi authorities to transfer the refugees to be quarantined and tested for coronavirus under the auspices of UNHCR near Cox's Bazaar, then allow them to be reunited with their families in the camps.

"Myanmar’s culpability for the plight of the Rohingya does not give Bangladesh free rein to send people to an island where their lives could be in danger," said Adams.

"Support from international donors can help Bangladesh protect the refugee population from the pandemic while upholding the rights and safety of newly arriving boat people."


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