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Nearly 300 Rohingya refugees quarantined by the Bangladeshi government on a treacherous island

Nearly 300 Rohingya refugees have been sent to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal after they were found adrift in a small boat off the southern coast of Bangladesh. The decision by the Bangladesh government ignores warnings from the United Nations and human rights organisations about the island’s suitability to host refugees.

Local government official Rezaul Karim confirmed on Friday (8 May 2020) that a naval ship had towed the boat carrying 280 Rohingya, including many women and children, to the small island.

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Memom told Benar News on Sunday (10 May 2020):

“Suddenly, the day before yesterday, some Rohingyas arrived in Teknaf aboard a dinghy. Some escaped, and the coast guard escorted the rest to Bhashan Char on Saturday night. They will be quarantined there.”

The site had earlier been chosen by the government to relocate 100,000 refugees from the overcrowded camps in the southern Cox’s Bazar district.

Back in February, Bangladesh appeared to back away from their plans after facing fierce criticism from the United Nations. The island measures around 9.5 square miles and is only accessible by a three-hour boat ride.

Rohingya refugees and human rights groups have warned that the island is vulnerable to rising sea levels and regularly gets flooded between the monsoon months of June to September. They add that any relocation of refugees to the island would leave them isolated, with limited access to education and health services.

Yanghee Lee, who until recently was the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar had said it was unclear as to whether Bhasan Char was “truly habitable”.

However, the outbreak of the coronavirus appears to have reverted the Bangladesh authorities to its initial position and the island will now – at the very least – be used to quarantine all Rohingyas attempting to reach Bangladesh and neighbouring countries by boat.

Bangladesh government officials have accused international aid workers of fear mongering over their claims around Bhasan Char, which literally means ‘floating island’. This is despite the island only emerging around 20 years ago from a slit and having officially been declared as a forest reserve in 2013.

The refugees sent to the island are among those Rohingya refugees who have spent months stranded at sea having attempted to reach Malaysia. On arrival they were turned away by the country as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Last month, some 28 Rohingya refugees died of hunger when their boat ran out of essentials. The boat was found floating in the water three months after it had left for Malaysia in January.

Hundreds more refugees remain stranded on at least two trawlers between Bangladesh and Malaysia, according to rights groups, who say south-east Asian governments are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to turn away refugees.

Razaul, a Rohingya refugee who has been living in Cox’s Bazar since 2017 – having fled the brutal military crackdown in Myanmar – believes his brother, his sister-in-law and their two children, aged six and eight, to be currently stranded at sea – having been missing for 53 days.

Speaking to the Guardian, Razaul said:

“I have only one message. My question to the UN and to the government of Bangladesh and others is to allow the boats to come in… They can save their lives.”

The question is now whether the Bangladesh government intends to expand the use of the island to relocate some of the 1 million plus Rohingya currently living in sprawling refugee camps in southern Bangladesh.

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