A boat carrying 280 Rohingyan refugees has been towed to a remote, uninhabited island called Bhasan Char, some three hours away from mainland Bangladesh. The refugees had been stranded at sea for weeks after reportedly being turned away by Malaysia and others, who said they could not allow them to enter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bangladeshi government had set up facilities to house up to 100,000 refugees on the island, but the move was called off after international agencies objected over the lack of basic services, with rights activists describing the island as a “dangerously flood-prone island without adequate healthcare”.
However, officials have now resumed attempts to use the island for refugees, citing the need to quarantine the refugees to prevent any risk of spreading COVID-19 – a claim dismissed by Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch:
“But the reality is that the UNHCR and other aid agencies already have quarantine facilities set up before and have already processed more than 400 people from a previous boat. So this an excuse by the Bangladesh government to operationalize the island of Bhasan Char which they’ve wanted to do for quite some time.”
“While everyone is appreciative that Bangladesh has brought forsaken Rohingya boats ashore, arbitrarily branding the passengers as ‘new arrivals’ and packing them off to a de facto detention island like Bhasan Char is not a rights respecting solution.”
“The Rohingya have repeatedly stated they do not want to be moved to Bahsan Char, but that is precisely what the Bangladesh government is forcing this group to do.”
It is believed that other boats remain stranded in similar circumstances, with many passengers having fled the much bigger refugee camp in Cox Bazaar after growing desperate over the extremely difficult living conditions faced there, and instead trying to find a way to reach Malaysia.
Their desperation leaves them vulnerable to traffickers seeking to exploit them by promising them entry to Malaysia in exchange for large sums of money.
Last month, another ship rescued by Bangladeshi authorities after two months at sea was said to have had over 70 dead bodies by the time it was rescued. One survivor told media that they ran out of food and water, and other bodies had to be thrown into the sea. Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) reported that many victims had been starved and beaten by traffickers, and some others even raped.