Bangladesh has taken a small group of Rohingya to an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal it had controversially developed for refugees, citing fears of COVID-19 contagion, officials said Sunday.
The refugees are likely from smuggling trawlers stranded at sea after Malaysia and Bangladesh refused to allow them to land, and which are now anchored off Myanmar, they said.
“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,” Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews on Sunday. Teknaf is the southernmost district in Bangladesh, bordering Myanmar.
“We sent them to Bhasan Char to keep them isolated from people in the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar,” Momen said. “Who knows whether they are infected with coronavirus or not?”
Momen declined to give the number of refugees taken to Bhasan Char, but a coast guard official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told BenarNews there were 29: five children, 19 women and five men.
"Most likely they will stay there until they return to Myanmar," AFP quoted Momen as saying.
It was the first time that Rohingya refugees have been taken to the flood-prone island, located hours from the mainland. Human rights groups oppose Dhaka’s plan to relocate refugees there, as the island is vulnerable to cyclones, and aid officials say it would be costly to provide services there.
Food, doctors and a team of 10 policemen were sent to the island to take care of the refugees, Tonmoy Das, the chief local government official in Noakhali district, told the Associated Press.
Tonmoy said the group was believed to be from one of several trawlers stuck at sea after both Bangladesh and Malaysia blocked them from landing.
Rohingya boats anchored off Myanmar, FM says
In mid-April, hundreds of “starving” Rohingya men, women and children were brought ashore in Bangladesh after a nearly two-month failed journey to Malaysia during which dozens died and were thrown overboard, officials and survivors said. Malaysia, which has sealed its borders to foreigners due to COVID-19, did not allow the boat to land, according to Rohingya survivors.
Momen subsequently announced that the government would not allow hundreds more Rohingya stranded at the sea in two trawlers off its southeastern coast to come ashore, causing human rights advocates to warn of a looming tragedy aboard the boats.
On Sunday, Momen told BenarNews that the trawlers had dropped anchor in Myanmar’s waters.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship although many of their families have been in that country for generations. They also do not get access to basic services, such as education and health care.
More than one million Rohingya are taking shelter in Bangladesh. About 740,000 of them fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, beginning in August 2017, after Naypyidaw’s military launched a brutal crackdown in response to deadly attacks by an insurgent group on government security posts. Other refugees had crossed in recent years to flee cycles of violence in Rakhine.
So far, no Rohingya has tested positive in refugee camps, according to health authorities. Bangladesh reported 665 new COVID-19 infections and two fatalities on Sunday, taking its cumulative cases to 9,455 with 177 deaths.
Bangladesh had developed housing and other infrastructure to accommodate thousands of refugees on Bhashan Char, saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in its main camps at Cox’s Bazar district, but rights groups had questioned the viability of the location.
Human rights investigator Yanghee Lee, who stepped down late last month as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on Myanmar, had raised questions on the island’s habitability.
“There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable,” she told reporters after visiting the island in January last year.
In February, state minister for disaster management Enamur Rahman told BenarNews the country had decided to hold off on its plan to relocate 100,000 Rohingya to Bhashan Char.
“We have not received support from U.N. agencies and the international community,” he said at the time.
Tareq Shamsur Rahman, an international relations professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, applauded the government’s decision to send the Rohingya to Bhasan Char, amid the threat of coronavirus ravaging the camps.
“It's a wise decision. There is no alternative to gradually rehabilitating them in Bhasan Char,” Rahman told BenarNews, as he warned that the government must stay alert to stem transmissions of the coronavirus in the crowded refugee camps. “Otherwise, Bangladesh can't bear the burden.”