Rohingya on Bhashan Char Island in Bangladesh seek to leave

DHAKA, Bangladesh – Its name translates to ‘floating island’ and for up to 100,000 desperate war refugees, the low-slung landmass is believed to be home.

A refugee, Munazar Islam, initially thought it would be his. He and his family of four fled Myanmar in 2017 after the military launched a campaign of murder and rape there that the United Nations called ethnic cleansing. After years of living in a fire and flood prone refugee camp, he accepted the invitation of the government of neighboring Bangladesh to settle on Bhasan Char Island.

Mr. Islam’s relief was short-lived. Jobs on the island were non-existent. Police controlled the movement of refugees and sometimes prohibited residents from mingling with neighbors or children from playing outside together. The island was vulnerable to floods and cyclones and, until relatively recently, occasionally disappeared underwater.

For example, in August, Mr. Islam paid smugglers about $ 400 to transport his family elsewhere.

“When I had the chance, I paid and left,” said Islam, who demanded that his location not be revealed because leaving Bhasan Char is illegal. “I died every day on this island and didn’t want to be stuck there. “

Bangladesh is struggling to find a long-term solution for more than one million members of the largely Muslim Rohingya minority group who have fled persecution in Myanmar.

The first shot – sticking them on an island – seems more and more difficult to achieve. A growing number of migrants are fleeing Bhasan Char, risking drowning in the waters of the Bay of Bengal as well as prosecution if arrested by authorities. For human rights groups, the exodus reflects the deplorable conditions on the island.

“Thousands of Rohingya refugees are confined to the island and not allowed to leave,” said Zaw Win of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization. “They lack freedom of movement, access to quality health care and livelihoods. “

The Bangladesh government, which hopes to eventually return the Rohingya to Myanmar, said the refugees would be happier once their loved ones start arriving and a local economy thrives.

“A community must be developed there, and that requires more people to come to the island,” said Shah Rezwan Hayat, the country’s Commissioner for Refugees, Relief and Repatriation. “Once more and more people start coming to the island, existing people will no longer need to leave the island to meet their loved ones.”

“We are working to develop the livelihoods of the island,” he added. “But restrictions on their movement will continue. They will not be allowed to leave the camp. And they are served food every day, so it is not the responsibility of Bangladesh to find jobs for them to earn money.

The United Nations and the Bangladeshi government on Saturday signed an agreement for closer cooperation on services and activities for the benefit of the island’s residents, including major areas like education and vocational training, according to a statement. With the deal, authorities will go ahead with a plan to relocate an additional 80,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char.

The Bangladeshi government hopes Bhasan Char will help alleviate deteriorating conditions for refugees elsewhere. Currently, nearly 890,000 Rohingya live in camps along a coastal region in eastern Bangladesh called Cox’s Bazar, according to the UN.

Bhasan Char is one of the many unstable islands made up largely of silt from the Meghna River, which empties into the bay. The island only became permanent in recent years, when the surrounding area was dredged to build an earthen embankment around the island.

However, the island may not be as permanent as it seems. Environmental experts say Bhasan Char’s existence is threatened by climate change, which has worsened storms and raised sea levels. Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, said refugees and workers aid workers fear that inadequate protection against storms and floods could seriously endanger the island’s inhabitants.

However, the government of Bangladesh has taken steps to resettle the Rohingya refugees there. They built homes for over 100,000 people, with a series of red-roofed dormitories crisscrossing over two square miles on the west side of the island.

The number of people trying to escape the island has become a growing problem. About 700 tried to flee, police say, sometimes paying $ 150 per person to find rides on rickety boats. Police arrested at least 200 people trying to leave.

Police report security concerns. In August, a boat carrying 42 people capsized, killing 14 people and missing 13.

“When we catch them, we send them back to the island,” said Abul Kalam Azad, a police officer from the port town of Chattogram, on the southeast coast of Bangladesh. “They say they are mostly upset that they don’t have a job in Bhasan Char. They are eager to work and earn money.

Some just want to see their families again.

Last year, Jannat Ara left his hut in Cox’s Bazar for a dangerous sea voyage to take a job in Malaysia that would provide food for eight members of his family. His boat was intercepted by the Bangladeshi navy. She was sent to Bhasan Char, where she lived with three other women.

Alone and desperate to leave, in May she seized the first chance she could have to escape. Her parents paid around $ 600 for the trip back to Cox’s Bazar, she said. She traveled for hours in total darkness before returning to camp.

“Only Allah knows how I lived there for a year,” Ms. Ara said. “It is a prison with red roofs and surrounded by the sea on all sides. I called my parents and I cried every day.

Human rights groups have questioned whether refugees in Bhasan Char have sufficient access to food, water, school and health care. In an emergency, they say, the island also lacks the capacity to evacuate residents.

“The fear is still there,” said Dil Mohammad, a Rohingya refugee who arrived on the island in December. “We are surrounded by the sea.

But the biggest worry, Mohammad said, is the education of his children.

“My oldest son used to go to community school when we were in Cox’s Bazar,” he says, “but he’s about to forget everything he’s learned because he hasn’t. the possibility of studying at Bhasan Char.

Fear of being stranded on the vulnerable island with no way out has led to protests against the Bangladeshi authorities by the refugees. The protests began in May, when UN human rights investigators visited. They continued in August after the boat incident, with protesters carrying placards criticizing the Bangladesh government and calling on the UN to be returned to Cox’s Bazar.

Mr. Islam, the Rohingya refugee who fled in August, was one of the protesters. But he was already thinking of going out.

He lost three cousins ​​in a killing spree carried out by the Burmese army in Rakhine State in 2017. Once in Cox’s Bazar, he and his family built a hillside hut with sticks and plastic sheeting and shared it with another family of three.

During hot summer nights, Islam said, he and the other man slept outside so their children and wives could sleep comfortably inside.

The promise of an apartment on Bhasan Char drew attention. In January, when other families were forced to attend, he volunteered. They were carrying a few blankets and two bags of clothes.

He came to regret his decision. When he returned to Cox’s Bazar in August, he saw it with new eyes.

“I felt,” he said, “as if I was entering my home.

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