The Rohingya refugee crisis which escalated in 2017 caused a massive influx of refugees into Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in March 2019, that over 909,000 Rohingya refugees resided in Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas in Bangladesh, with the majority living in 34 camps under overcrowded conditions.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report, “An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea”, in June 2021, which details the relocation of Rohingya refugees to a remote silt island called the Bhasan Char, located in the Bay of Bengal. This relocation continued from December 2020 initiated by the Bangladesh government. According to the HRW report, 306 Rohingya refugees were initially brought to Bhasan Char in May 2020 by the Bangladesh government. This was after the Bangladesh Navy rescued the refugees who were lost at sea. According to the HRW report, the Bangladesh authorities initially reported the refugees were taken to Bhasan Char instead of Cox’s Bazar as a temporary measure to quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, after a complete year, the refugees are currently being held on the island against their will. The HRW report consists of interviews of Rohingya refugees living on the island. These refugees have pleaded for months to return to Cox’s Bazar to reunite with their families.
According to the June 2021 HRW report, the government of Bangladesh views the Bhasan Char island as a solution to the overcrowding of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, as about one million refugees reside in the camps. Further, the government plans to relocate 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char. The HRW report also highlighted the detrimental situation on the Bhasan Char island. It is profoundly emphasized that the island is “not safe for settlement” because it was created by depositing silt and the shorelines have shifted. Furthermore, there is no airstrip for planes, and the island is inaccessible at times of high winds and cyclones. Due to such safety risks, the lives of Rohingya refugees on the island should be a priority concern.
A recent news release on June 7th, 2021 by the HRW, further highlighted the concerns of the Rohingya refugees and the lack of necessities such as emergency medical care services, and educational facilities. According to one aid worker, there are about 8,495 children on Bhansar Char island and only about 1,500 children are receiving education provided by four non-governmental organizations.
Lack of infrastructure combined with the monsoon season that begins in June, there can be an increased risk to the safety of the Rohingya refugees on the island. The HRW news release reported that “although the government says there are adequate storm shelters, there is the risk that refugees, Bangladeshi security personnel, and humanitarian workers, could end up marooned on the island with limited supplies”. Hence, due to the instability of the island and lack of emergency medical services, in an island that can be cut-off from the mainland in the event of cyclones, high winds, and flooding – the situation can escalate rapidly.
The HRW called for the United Nations and donor governments to conduct an independent assessment on the “safety, disaster preparedness, and habitability at Bhasan Char” to protect the lives of the Rohingya refugees. There should be appropriate measures to safeguard the lives of the Rohingya refugees on the island, as well as strategies to address the root of the problem.