Bangladesh challenges NGO report of intimidation against Rohingya
2022.02.01 -- Bangladeshi government officials on Tuesday dismissed an NGO's report alleging that authorities are using force and intimidation to compel Rohingya to move from crowded refugee camps in mainland Bangladesh to an isolated island.
Citing interviews with refugees and representatives of international humanitarian groups, the Fortify Rights group on Sunday reported "patterns of coercive and involuntary transfers, including needless family separation."
"It's cruel and inhumane to separate these families of genocide survivors. The government should cease any additional transfers to the island until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine consultation and informed consent is assured," Ismail Wolff, the NGO's regional director, said in a statement.
He was talking about Bhashan Char, a tiny, low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal whose resident population is made up almost exclusively of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Fortify Rights had earlier made similar allegations about refugees being made to go to the island against their will, but that was before U.N. officials became involved in humanitarian activities there.
Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner challenged Fortify Rights' findings.
"The statement might have been prepared based on wrong information. We are relocating Rohingya people to Bhashan Char from Cox's Bazar with their full consent," Shah Rezwan Hayat told BenarNews.
He called on Fortify Rights and other groups concerned about Rohingya to visit the refugee camps before commenting on the alleged treatment of the refugees.
"The Rohingya population in Bhashan Char could have been much higher had we used force to bring them here. The activities of relocation are taking place in the presence of representatives of many NGOs, International Organizations and United Nations agencies," he said.
Bangladesh's government has set up housing for 100,000 people on the island to alleviate pressure on the refugee camps in and around Cox's Bazar district on the mainland that house about 1 million Rohingya. About 21,000 have relocated to the island since December 2020.
In its report, "Bangladesh: Prevent Coercive and Involuntary Transfers of Rohingya Refugees," Fortify Rights said it interviewed 10 Rohingya, including two on Bhashan Char.
It alleges that aid organizations in Cox's Bazar district shared documents showing recurring threats, coercion and intimidation against Rohingya prior to transfers to Bhashan Char in December 2021 and January 2022. The report did not include the documents.
'I was shaking out of fear'
Fortify Rights also alleges that Bangladesh authorities beat a Rohingya man who obstructed efforts to move others to the island, and confiscated documents from his family before forcing him to Bhashan Char, where he is separated from his wife and children.
Without naming her, Fortify Rights quoted the man's wife: "I was shaking out of fear when they took my family's [documents].
"I saw my husband's face was swollen from the beating," she said. "I want my husband to come back home. I do not want to go to Bhashan Char."
Hayat, the refugee commissioner, said he was not aware of any efforts to use force to split families.
According to Fortify Rights, a 27-year-old Rohingya man said that, in mid-December, government officials brought in about 25 "thugs" to coerce refugees to prepare to move to the island from the mainland.
"They brought sticks with them, and some women were beaten. Before they [authorities] left the camp they said, 'we will bring the crane and gasoline along with us tomorrow. If you are not ready to go tomorrow [Dec. 17, 2021] with the sacks given to you, we will either break your shelters and burn them or drag you to the truck,'" the man told Fortify Rights.
Bhashan Char concerns
As early as December 2020, Fortify Rights called on the Bangladesh government to halt Bhashan Char relocation efforts over concerns that the island was isolated and flood prone.
"Not one refugee should be moved until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine informed consent is assured," Wolff said at the time.
More recently, the NGO called on the government to ensure the Rohingya are protected, have access to education and freedom of movement. It released a statement on Dec. 20, 2021, a day after U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews traveled to the island during a week-long visit in Bangladesh to meet with government officials and Rohingya leaders.
In October 2021, BenarNews obtained a copy of a memorandum of understanding between the Bangladesh government and UNHCR. The MoU, which was not made public, would allow the U.N. agency to set up humanitarian operations on Bhashan Char and allow those on the island to move more freely.
The U.N. relief agency UNHCR did not immediately respond on Tuesday to a BenarNews request for comment.
Rohingya speak out
Meanwhile, a Rohingya who moved to Bhashan Char from the Ukhia camp with his wife and four children in December 2020 said he had tried but failed to sail from the island on three occasions.
"I came here for a better life than in Cox's Bazar, but I found a different life here. I have a good house, but the medical system and the food supply system are very poor," Jahirul Islam told BenarNews. "I am living here with my family like prisoners."
A Rohingya who lives at a camp in the Teknaf sub-district said he feared camp leaders were working with authorities to get people to move to the island.
"A few of my neighbors and relatives have been shifted to Bhashan Char. They told me the conditions are not good there," Md. Nur told BenarNews. "I am concerned that the authorities are regularly asking camp leaders regularly to give names of people to send them to Bhashan Char. Sometimes, they pressure our leaders in this regard."
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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