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Rohingya refugees arrive at 'de facto detention island' in Bangladesh

Rights groups decry relocation of people picked up at sea after fleeing camps in Cox’s Bazar

A Bangladeshi navy vessel takes a boat carrying Rohingya refugees alongside. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, including children, have arrived at “a de facto detention island” in Bangladesh after being stranded at sea for weeks.

Rights groups had warned that the refugees, who had been turned away from other countries in the region, were at risk of starvation and abuse by people traffickers. It is believed that other boats remain adrift.

Bangladesh confirmed on Thursday that a boat carrying 280 people was being towed to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited silt island off the southern coast. The country’s foreign minister, Abdul Momen, had earlier said that refugees rescued at sea would be sent to the island to prevent any risk of spreading the coronavirus to the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar, where a million Rohingya live in cramped conditions.

Bangladesh, which has struggled to cope with the camps, planned to start moving refugees to Bhasan Char last December, and has built rows of concrete barracks to house about 100,000 people. The relocation was put on hold following an outcry from Rohingya community leaders and international agencies.

Human rights groups say the island, which can be reached only by a three-hour boat journey, has no access to basic services and is vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said there was no need to send refugees to the island to be quarantined because the UN’s refugee agency and other bodies had facilities set up for this purpose in Cox’s Bazar. Instead, families should be reunited with missing relatives as quickly as possible.

“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,” he said.

Makeshift housing in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. Photograph: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Many of the people on board are refugees who had been living in Cox’s Bazar but who attempted to flee in search of a better life in Malaysia.

“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,” Robertson said.

Serazul Hoque said he believed his 14-year-old nephew, who had been missing for more than 50 days, is among those taken to Bhasan Char. Traffickers had told the family to pay a ransom to secure Nur Kamaal’s release, but he called on Wednesday to say the Bangladeshi navy had stopped his boat and that all people on board were being taken to a different location.

The family later heard news reports that refugees from the boat were being taken to Bhasan Char, but have not been able to confirm that Kamaal is among them.

“We are worried about conditions there and how good the healthcare is,” Hoque said. “If he comes back to his mother then his mother can take care of him … She is worrying for her son. She is crying.”

Sirajul Mostofa, the chairman of Rohingya Refugee Committee, said he was in contact with other families whose children had been taken to Bhasan Char. He said he hoped the government would reunite them with their families after the quarantine period.

Mostofa said there were no words to describe the conditions on the boats, but that people risk the journey because there is no alternative. “They have no future [in refugee camps in Bangladesh], they cannot see any proper solution at all.”

It is not clear how many more boats are still at sea, but Bangladesh’s navy and coast guard is on alert for others in the country’s waters.

The Bangladeshi authorities rescued a separate ship last month, allowing about 400 emaciated people, mostly teenagers, to come ashore after spending two months at sea. More than 70 people may have died on the boat, it has been reported, but no official death toll has been announced.

© 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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