Human Rights Watch has called on Bangladesh to move more than 300 Rohingya refugees, including children, to the camps in Cox’s Bazaar district, more than two months after they were quarantined on a small flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.
The Rohingya were rescued by the Bangladesh navy in early May after being stranded at sea for weeks, and sent to Bhashan Char island – a silty strip of land off the southern coast that is vulnerable to monsoon storms.
Bangladesh has said the 308 refugees were sent to the island rather than the camps in Cox’s Bazar because authorities were afraid they might have the highly infectious disease COVID-19.
“Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement on Thursday.
“The government is inexplicably delaying aid workers’ access to support the refugees with immediate care, and refusing to reunite them with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.”
According to the US-based rights group, the quarantined refugees do not have adequate access to food, clean drinking water or medical care. Some have also alleged being beaten up and mistreated by the authorities, it said.
Bangladesh last year constructed facilities for 100,000 people on Bhashan Char, a muddy silt islet in the cyclone-prone coastal belt, saying they needed to take the pressure off crowded border camps that are home to almost one million Rohingya.
But the United Nations, rights activists and aid agencies have repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of those quarantined there and urged for relocation.
According to Bangladesh officials, the outbreak among Rohingya refugees has been “successfully contained” amid fears that the disease spread rapidly in overcrowded camps.
Some 724 Rohingya have been tested in the Bangladesh camps, with 54 found positive and five died since the first cases were detected in May, officials said.
Rohingya live in sprawling refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, most having arrived from Myanmar in late 2017 after fleeing a military crackdown that the UN said was conducted with genocidal intent.
The Myanmar army denies “genocide” and says it was carrying out a legitimate campaign against armed rebels who attacked police posts.
In January, the Hague-based International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya, who face widespread discrimination and have been stripped of their nationality.