Rohingya Protest as UN Officials Visit Bangladesh Refugee Island

Jesmin Papri and Abdur Rahman
Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Rohingya Protest as UN Officials Visit Bangladesh Refugee Island Police stand nearby as a large crowd of Rohingya gathers in an area of a complex housing refugees on Bhashan Char Island, Bangladesh during a visit by senior officials of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), May 31, 2021.

A protest by hundreds of Rohingya turned violent on Monday as senior U.N. officials visited a remote and low-lying island where Bangladesh is housing more than 18,000 of the stateless refugees from Myanmar, police said.

Injuries were reported as police and protesters clashed while a delegation of high-ranking officials from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, was visiting Bhashan Char Island after arriving from mainland Bangladesh, authorities and refugee-community leaders said.

Police told BenarNews that between 500 and 600 people took part in Monday’s protest, in which refugees vented anger about their living conditions and being confined to the offshore complex, which the government built specially for the Rohingya. But Mohammad Jubair, a refugee leader on the island, said as many as 4,000 people joined the protest.

“A group of bad Rohingya people sparked the protest in the presence of the UNHCR officials. They tried to create chaos. They vandalized a government office, a motorcycle and some shops,” Mahe Alam, the officer-in-charge at the Bhashan Char police station, told BenarNews.

“We will identify the perpetrators and take legal actions in line with the decision of the authorities.”

According to Md Alamgir Hossain, the police chief of surrounding Noakhali district, a crowd of Rohingya refugees tried to approach the visitors from UNHCR as a helicopter carrying them and government officials landed at around 10 a.m.

“For safety reasons, the police intervened, and the violent Rohingya threw brickbats at them. At least four policemen had minor injuries. But we did not use force on the Rohingya. They retreated as we convinced them not to go into violence,” he said.

According to Rohingya refugees, police charged with their batons at the protesters.  

“Later, the UNHCR officials had talks with the Rohingya refugees and left the island on a helicopter at around 3 p.m. for Cox’s Bazar,” Hossain said, referring to the southeastern district where around 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees are sheltering after fleeing from violence and persecution next door in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

The two UNHCR officials, Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Raouf Mazou and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs, were visiting the island after arriving in Dhaka on Sunday for a four-day visit to Bangladesh. They are the senior-most officials from the Geneva-based U.N. agency to visit Bhashan Char to date.

“[W]e are deeply concerned to learn of reports of refugees who have been injured during today’s events on the island. We regret that those affected reportedly include children and women,” Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman for the Dhaka office of UNHCR, said in a statement issued late Monday.

“The safety and wellbeing of refugees is our main priority and we continue to urgently seek additional information on the condition of those affected and urge that they receive adequate medical assistance,” she told BenarNews.

During Monday’s visit to Bhashan Char, the UNHCR delegation “was able to meet with a large group of refugees and to listen to the various issues that they raised, which the delegation will further discuss with the Bangladesh authorities,” she added.

The assistant high commissioners travelled on to Cox’s Bazar, where they were scheduled to visit Rohingya camps on Tuesday before returning to Dhaka to meet with senior government officials, Donovan said.

Since last December, Bangladeshi authorities have been relocating large batches of refugees to Bhashan Char from Cox’s Bazar, claiming that Rohingya are doing so voluntarily and this is needed to ease overcrowding and reduce crime in the congested and squalid camps on the mainland.

On Monday, several hundred refugees assembled to protest, said Mohammad Sohel, a Rohingya leader on Bhashan Char.

“The agitated Rohingya threw brickbats at the police and vandalized a government warehouse. I heard that some people were injured,” he told BenarNews by phone from the island.

“The Rohingya people planned to meet the UNHCR officials to let them know about their problems in Bhashan Char, but the police obstructed us,” said Nurul Islam, another Rohingya leader.

“The aggrieved Rohingya did not get the chance to talk to the UNHCR officials. Another group of Rohingya were given the chance to talk to the UNHCR officials,” he told BenarNews.

Mohammad Jubair was among refugee-community leaders who participated in the meeting with the U.N. officials.

The UNHCR delegates asked the refugees if they would be willing to continue living on the island if the U.N. agency began operations on Bhashan Char, he said.

“But the Rohingya refugees told them they did not want to live on Bhashan Char,” Jubair told BenarNews.

The United Nations has not formally started operations there.

In March, a UNHCR team visited Bhashan Char for the first time. In mid-April, the agency urged Bangladesh to slow down its program to move refugees from the mainland to Bhashan Char because, UNHCR said, measures to protect residents from storms and flooding were not fully in place.

Kamran Reza Chowdhury contributed to this report from Dhaka.


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