Rohingya refugees allege they are being held against their will in jail-like conditions and subjected to rape and sexual assault on a Bangladeshi island in the Bay of the Bengal.
A group of more than 300 refugees were taken to the uninhabited, silt island of Bhasan Char in April, when a boat they were travelling on was intercepted by Bangladeshi authorities.
The refugees were attempting to sail from the sprawling camps of Cox’s Bazar on the Bangladeshi mainland to Malaysia. Like hundreds of thousands of others, they originally fled to Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar, where they faced violence and ethnic cleansing.
Sitara, 28, who only uses one name, is being held on Bhasan Char with her three children aged nine, seven and six. She had paid traffickers a huge sum to board the boat in an attempt to join her husband, who is in Malaysia.
She said that after the boat was intercepted, the refugees had been told by police they would be held on Bhasan Char for two weeks. “They lied to us,” she said, sobbing. “We feel cheated. There is no one to help relieve our miseries. We are so helpless.”
Umme Khairu’s parents couldn’t afford the boat journey, so her berth was paid for by a prospective groom in Malaysia. The 18-year-old described feeling trapped on the island. “Life is very painful,” she said. “I feel I am in a cage or a jail, with no contact allowed with my family. I want to see my parents. I want to see my brothers and sisters. But there is no way out.”
Khairu said the refugees were being held in jail-like conditions, with up to five people per 50-square ft room. She alleged that refugees were given dirty water to drink, which was often filled with insects. Many women were covered in rashes, she said.
“Some among us sometimes say that we will never be taken out and that we will die here ,” she said. “I feel very scared. “What offence did I commit that I have been dumped here?”
Two women who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said sexual violence had been inflicted by police guards on some female refugees.
“One or two security personnel were caught by the Rohingya men after they raped a young, unmarried girl,” one said. “The girl cried out badly and alerted the Rohingya men who lived in the same area. But we have no way to know if any police case was registered.”
Another said women had been able to seek protection from female police officers on duty during the day, but at night only male officers were on duty.
“In a couple of other cases, two other women were targeted, but somehow they managed to escape the attacks,” she said. “We feel vulnerable. Sometimes we feel as scared as we used to feel with the violent Burmese soldiers, before we fled our homeland.”
Bangladeshi authorities said the intercepted refugees were brought to the island as a temporary measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the Cox’s Bazar camps.
Bangladesh has built housing for 100,000 people on Bhasan Char and wants to relocate some of the million Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar. However, grave concerns expressed by human rights groups and the Rohingya themselves over safety, living conditions and freedom of movement on the remote island have delayed official, large-scale relocation attempts.
Women on Bhasan Char said that when they pleaded with police to be released, they were badly beaten. They alleged that one woman was recently caned so badly she had to be taken to hospital. Her present whereabouts are unknown.
An Amnesty International report published last week also alleged sexual assault against Rohingya women on the island. They called for authorities to open an investigation.
Mahbub Alam Talukder, the Bangladeshi refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, denied all allegations of sexual assault and said no investigation would be carried out. He also said no refugee would be forcibly relocated to the island.
“No incident of sexual abuse or molestation of any Rohingya woman took place in Bhasan Char. We are sure about that,” said Talukder. “What is the need of such an inquiry?”
Louise Donovan from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that despite assurances from the Bangladeshi government that the UN would be able to conduct a humanitarian visit to the refugees held on Bhasan Char, such a visit had still not occurred. Donovan said it was “urgent for the visit to go ahead”.
In the first week of September, about 40 Rohingya leaders were invited on a “guided tour” of Bhasan Char to view the facilities for themselves. Two of the leaders who took the tour told the Guardian they would not support any Rohingya being moved to the island or agree to bring their families there. They also reported that after several Rohingya leaders spoke to the press about their concerns over Bhasan Char, they were threatened by police officers and told to stay quiet.
Abul Kalam, a community leader in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, said he had witnessed women and children held on Bhasan Char crying and desperately pleading to be taken off the island.
“They begged with us to take them along when we left,” said Kalam. “One woman said, ‘Don’t be impressed by the buildings. They look nice from outside. But we are living here like jail inmates. We cannot move around freely. Mostly, we have to stay indoors in the small rooms.’”
Kalam expressed concern that the island appeared ill-equipped to deal with natural disasters such as storms, tidal surges and earthquakes. He said there were no means for the refugees to build livelihoods or farm.
“If I am asked to live in this island with my family, I will certainly refuse,” he said. “I would be too scared to live here.”