Earlier this month, the Bangladesh government began the process of relocating thousands of Rohingya refugees to the remote Bhasan Char island, a move that has prompted significant concern from human rights groups. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, amongst others, have criticised Bangladesh authorities for their lack of transparency around the relocation process, particularly surrounding whether these refugees have consented to the move. Despite repeated requests, the government of Bangladesh is also yet to allow the UN an opportunity to carry out their own safety assessment of the island, leaving many to question whether such land is capable of providing the food, medical facilities and livelihood opportunities needed to support the expected 100,000 new inhabitants. If they proceed, the plans will likely threaten to place the human rights of the Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim group forced to flee ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar, into even further peril.
Aimed at reducing overcrowding at the camps of Cox’s Bazaar, the Bangladesh government maintains that the 300 to 400 Rohingya refugees already sent to the island have done so on a ‘voluntarily basis.’ However, reports from those on the ground tell a different story. Based on their own investigation, Omar Waraich, Head of South Asia at Amnesty International contends that ‘many of the Rohingya who have signed up to relocate to Bhashan Char are doing so out of compulsion rather than choice.’ Ismail Wolff, Regional Director of Fortify Rights, expresses similar concerns, suggesting that ‘given the remote and isolated nature of the island, the inability of refugees to leave the island, and the severe restrictions on freedom of movement on the island, Bhasan Char is essentially an island detention centre.’
Until the safety and suitability of the island for human habitation can be verified by the UN or other humanitarian organisations, the Bangladesh government should immediately halt their relocation program. In the absence of independent human rights monitoring, the opportunities for further human rights violations to take place become greater, and as such, should be a major concern for the broader international community. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bangladesh has a responsibility to protect the rights to freedom of movement and liberty to all its people, including refugees. As such, any decision concerning the relocation of refugees must be made with the full participation and input of the Rohingya people, without coercion or undue pressure.
This is not the first time the government of Bangladesh has been criticised for its treatment of Rohingya refugees. Whilst having commended the country for opening its borders to those fleeing the atrocities in Myanmar, the international community has on many occasions criticised the government for failing to uphold the basic human rights of the refugees currently housed within the Cox Bazar camps. Limited access to protection services, restrictions on freedom of movement and expression and widespread gender-based violence are amongst some the pressing issues experienced within these camps.
Certainly, one cannot deny the challenges associated with housing the nearly one million Rohingya refugees that have crossed the border into Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it is clear that relocating Rohingya refugees to the remote island of Bhasan Char island without their informed consent is not the solution. To prevent further human rights violations, the government of Bangladesh must ensure all decisions related to the Rohingya refugees are made with greater transparency and respect for the needs of those who they directly involve. Until the Rohingya people can safely return to Myanmar, it will be imperative for other nations, including the U.S., U.K., and Australia, to support Bangladesh as they attempt to devise a more sustainable, rights-focused solution to this ongoing refugee crisis.
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