Written by Ibnat Islam, Policy Researcher

Rohingya refugees are faced with a new struggle as COVID-19 continues ravaging Bangladesh. Over 300 Rohingya refugees (which includes around 33 children), who arrived at the Southern coast of Bangladesh, have been moved to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal. These refugees were rescued by the Bangladesh navy after being stuck at sea for weeks in early May. Bangladeshi authorities claim they were sent to Bhasan Char to be quarantined. Regarded as an “inhabitable” island, the move has brought forth many concerns regarding the safety and wellbeing of the relocated refugees. 

Concerns Over Rohingya in Bhasan Char 

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in the Human Rights Watch statement released on July 9, “Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return.”

The refugees have been detained on the island for over two months. Bhasan Char is a flood-prone island, which reaches its peaks of danger during the current monsoon season. Understandably, the Rohingya refugees have been strongly opposed to being moved to Bhasan Char. Humanitarian experts have been concerned about the existence of basic necessities on the island- freedom to movement, food, water, healthcare, and education. 

As predicted by experts, refugees with relatives on Bhasan Char have told Human Rights Watch about their lack of freedoms, from food and water to movement and healthcare, and physical abuse and maltreatment by authorities. Those wanting to see their family members on Bhasan Char were told they would have to go to the island to see them

Bangladesh has been hosting over 700, 000 Rohingya refugees since the influx of refugees in 2017. Rohingya refugees are primarily held in two camps in Bangladesh; Kutupalong and Nayapara, both located in Cox’s Bazar with Kutupalong claiming the title of the world’s largest refugee camp. The significant number of refugees has put a strain on the Bangladesh government, especially with regards to its limited facilities and services. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure faced by the government has only gotten stronger.

The move to Bhasan Char also prods the question; how should the Bangladesh government deal with a pandemic and refugee crisis simultaneously? 

Recommended Actions for Bangladesh, Canada, Myanmar, and the International Community

The process of justice for the Rohingya is a long one. Myanmar continues to defend itself despite facing genocide charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) after being taken there by The Gambia in November 2019. 

In spite of the fight ahead, the immediate answer to consistently focus on is to prioritize the lives and wellbeing of the Rohingya refugees. For a group of people escaping religious persecution and intense violations of human rights, it is both traumatizing and dehumanizing to be moved to an island that endangers the people on it.

Instead, the Bangladesh government must:

As such, the Canadian government has an important role to play as a member of the international community, and as a developed country. Rather, it is imperative to continue to urge Myanmar to hold itself accountable and continue to financially support Bangladesh in its efforts to maintain the virus and shelter refugees. 

On a slightly different note, this pandemic should be met with urgency by the Bangladesh government and the international community. Bangladesh and the international community should engage in serious discussions with the Burmese government with regard to accountability, citizenship, and subsequent citizenship rights. 

COVID-19 highlights the depths of the hardships that those who are most marginalized can fall into. It is time for Myanmar to hold itself responsible for instigating the genocide and persecution of the Rohingya, who continue to suffer doubly amidst the pandemic and within their identities and realities of statelessness. Rohingya refugees deserve citizenship, with “all accompanying rights and protections”

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