Rohingya refugees moved to a Bangladesh island fear they will be exposed to terrible conditions during the upcoming monsoon season, and are struggling with “inadequate” health and education facilities, a Human Rights Watch report said.
About 18,800 refugees have been moved from the Cox’s Bazar region – where approximately 850,000 people live in squalid and cramped conditions after fleeing Myanmar – to the low-lying silt island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal.
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A spokesman for the prime minister’s office told the AFP news agency that another 80,000 Rohingya would be moved to the island soon.
The Bangladesh government has insisted the relocation is voluntary, and that the island is safe from cyclones and its facilities are far better than the Cox’s Bazar camps.
Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, the director of Bhashan Char project, has assured that the island has enough preparation to tackle the monsoon and tidal surge.
“Bhashan Char has a total of 120 cyclone shelter centres. Each of these centres can accommodate 1,000 people and 200 cattles during a storm. Those are also being constructed in a systematic manner. I don’t think any of the refugees living here are in danger,” he told Al Jazeera.
Chowdhury also said that all the Rohingya refugees who have come to live in Bhashan Char have done so willingly. “They are not being forced to come here.”
But Human Rights Watch said, after interviewing 167 refugees, that they had been moved “without full, informed consent” and prevented from returning to the mainland.
The refugees also spoke of a shortage of health facilities and education for their children, the 58-page report said.
Others feared the monsoon season starting in June could expose them to high winds and flooding on the island.
Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Dhaka had been “generous and compassionate” in sheltering the Rohingya – many of whom fled Myanmar after a brutal military crackdown in 2017 – but that their rights should be protected.
“The Bangladesh government is finding it hard to cope with over a million Rohingya refugees, but forcing people to a remote island just creates new problems,” Bill Frelick, HRW’s director of migrant and refugee rights, said in a statement.
“International donors should assist the Rohingya, but also insist that Bangladesh return refugees who want to return to the mainland or if experts say island conditions are too dangerous or unsustainable.”
Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen hit back at the report, telling AFP that “whatever resources we have, we have tried to provide the best of services to these people”.
“Their nations are very developed… If they have so much sympathy, let them take them back to their country,” Momen said of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“I am sorry we cannot have better facilities because we are not a rich country. We cannot afford to provide more things.”
On Friday, a boat filled with dozens of Rohingya landed off the Indonesian coast after a months-long journey – the latest in a wave of arrivals from the cramped camps in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh police have also arrested Rohingya trying to flee Bhashan Char, while thousands protested against conditions on the island last week during a visit by the United Nations refugee agency.
Faisal Mahmud contributed to this report from Dhaka