Rohingya refugees seek escape from promised sanctuary in Bangladesh

Rohingya refugees on a navy vessel on their way to the Bhasan Char island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh, on Dec 29, 2020.
Rohingya refugees on a navy vessel on their way to the Bhasan Char island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh, on Dec 29, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (NYTIMES) - Its name translates into "floating island", and for up to 100,000 desperate war refugees, the low-slung landmass is supposed to be home.

One refugee, Mr Munazar Islam, initially thought it would be his. He and his family of four fled Myanmar in 2017 after the military there unleashed a campaign of murder and rape that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.

After years in a refugee camp prone to fires and floods, he accepted an invitation from the government of neighbouring Bangladesh to move to the island, Bhasan Char.

Mr Islam's relief was short lived. Jobs on the island were nonexistent. Police officers controlled the refugees' movements and sometimes barred residents from mingling with neighbours, or children from playing together outside.

The island was vulnerable to flooding and cyclones and, until relatively recently, would occasionally disappear underwater.

So, in August, Mr Islam paid human smugglers about US$400 (S$540) to ferry his family somewhere else.

"When I got the chance, I paid and left," said Mr Islam, who asked that his location not be revealed because leaving Bhasan Char is illegal. "I died every day on that island, and I 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 fled persecution in Myanmar.

The first plan - stick them on an island - looks increasingly difficult to pull off. Growing numbers of migrants are fleeing Bhasan Char, risking drowning in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, as well as prosecution if they are caught by the authorities.

For human rights groups, the exodus stands as testament to the deplorable conditions on the island.

"Thousands of Rohingya refugees are confined to the island and not granted permission to leave," said Mr Zaw Win of Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation. "They lack freedom of movement, access to quality health care and livelihoods."

The Bangladesh government, which hopes to eventually send the Rohingya back to Myanmar, said refugees will be happier once their relatives begin arriving and a local economy develops.

"A community needs to be developed there, and it requires more people to come to the island," said Mr Shah Rezwan Hayat, the country's refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner. "Once more people start coming to the island, the existing people will not need to leave the island to meet their relatives."

"We are working to develop the livelihood of the island," he added. "But restrictions on their movement will continue. They won't be allowed to move outside the camp. And they are served food every day, so it's not Bangladesh's responsibilities to arrange jobs for them to earn money."

The Bangladeshi government hopes Bhasan Char will help alleviate worsening conditions for refugees elsewhere. At the moment, 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 a number of unstable islands made largely of silt from the Meghna River, which empties into the bay. The island became permanent only in recent years, when the surrounding area was dredged to build an earthen embankment around the island.

The island may not be as permanent as it might appear, however. Environmental experts say Bhasan Char's existence is under threat from climate change, which has worsened storms and sent sea levels rising.

Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, said refugees and humanitarian workers alike fear that inadequate storm and flood protection could put those on the island at serious risk.

Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government has moved ahead with resettling Rohingya refugees there. They have built housing for more than 100,000 people, with a series of red-roofed dormitories checkering more than 518ha of the western side of the island.

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

The police cite safety concerns. In August, a boat carrying 42 people capsized, leaving 14 people dead and 13 missing.

"When we catch them, we send them back to the island," said police officer Abul Kalam Azad in the port city of Chattogram on the south-eastern coast of Bangladesh. "They say they are mostly upset for not having any job in Bhasan Char. They are eager to work and earn money."

Some simply want to see their families again.

Human rights groups have questioned whether the refugees at Bhasan Char have enough access to food, water, schooling and healthcare. In an emergency, they say, the island also lacks an ability to evacuate residents.

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

The fear of being stuck on the vulnerable island without any means of getting out has led to protests against Bangladeshi authorities by the refugees.

The protests began in May, when UN human rights investigators paid a visit. They continued in August after the boat incident, with protesters carrying signs criticising the Bangladesh government and appealing to the UN to get sent back to Cox's Bazar.

Mr Islam was one of the protesters. But he was already thinking about getting out.

He lost three cousins during a killing spree carried out by the Myanmar military in Rakhine state in 2017. Once they arrived in Cox's Bazar, he and his family built a hillside hut out of sticks and plastic tarpaulins and shared it with another family of three.

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

The promise of an apartment on Bhasan Char held appeal. In January, while other families were forced to go there, he volunteered. They carried a few blankets and two bags of clothes.

He came to regret the decision. When he arrived back at Cox's Bazar in August, he saw it with new eyes.

"I felt as if I was walking into my home."