The United States on Thursday joined the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations in expressing concern about Bangladesh moving more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island that, critics say, is uninhabitable.
In Washington, the State Department urged Dhaka to accept the U.N.’s offer to conduct a thorough and independent assessment of Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal, to determine that living there is safe, feasible and desirable.
“The United States has long noted its appreciation for the Government of Bangladesh’s commitment to hosting the Rohingya refugees but is concerned about the relocation of 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char and plans to carry out further relocations,” Cale Brown, the department’s principal deputy spokesman, said in a statement issued as the world marked Human Rights Day.
“With the U.N. and likeminded donors, the United States has asked for Bangladesh to accept the U.N.’s offer of thorough and independent technical and protection assessments to determine the safety, feasibility, and desirability of relocating refugees there.”
Independent access to Bhashan Char will help to confirm whether refugees were moved to the island and remain there voluntarily, Brown said. Access will also help determine whether the island can withstand cyclones and seasonal flooding, he added.
Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asian group, said last week that Bangladesh had coerced the Rohingya into moving to Bhashan Char, an allegation that the government forcefully denied.
Meanwhile in Geneva, a U.N. human rights expert also expressed concern on Thursday that Rohingya were moved to Bhashan Char last week without an independent assessment of the island.
“These verifications and assessments are in the best interest of all,” Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said in a statement.
“They will assure the government of Bangladesh of the suitability of Bhashan Char to host refugees or identify changes that might be necessary. It will also assure that the government’s policy of strict voluntary relocation to Bhashan Char is, indeed, being faithfully carried out,” he said.
Bangladesh last week moved more than 1,600 Rohingya refugees from crowded camps in mainland Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern district next to the Myanmar border, to Bhashan Char. These Rohingya joined 306 of their compatriots who had been moved to the island in May, following weeks they spent at sea after fleeing Myanmar.
On Thursday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said he was not aware of the U.S. statement. He also gave his explanation for why there had been no U.N. assessment.
“The United Nations has not formally written to the government about going to Bhashan Char,” he told BenarNews.
He also said the Bangladesh government would not block U.N. efforts to access and assess the island.
“We don’t have any objection if they want to go to Bhashan Char,” he said.
Questions about conditions on Bhashan Char are “a damn lie,” Momen said, adding that facilities on the island were “much better” than in the mainland camps.
The government had said it spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, and other infrastructure on Bhashan Char, to eventually house 100,000 Rohingya.
Most of the 1 million Rohingya who fled Myanmar live in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, including more than 740,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state that began in August 2017.
In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials signed an agreement to begin the process of repatriating Rohingya in early 2018, but there has been no movement since then.
“Bhashan Char is a temporary shelter for Rohingya. We are trying to send them back to Myanmar,” Momen said.
When asked about the 306 Rohingya who were involuntarily taken to Bhashan Char in May, Momen bristled.
“Big countries lobbied Bangladesh to take those 306 Rohingya. These countries have no right to talk about this group. We have no objection if any country wants to take them,” he said.
Bangladesh is planning to move another 3,500 Rohingya to Bhashan Char this week, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), the state news service, recently reported. As of Thursday evening local time, no more Rohingya had been moved.
‘Crisis emanated from Myanmar’
Despite their concerns about the Rohingya being moved to Bhashan Char, the U.S. and the U.N. praised Bangladesh for its generosity toward the Rohingya who were forced to flee their country.
They said Myanmar needed to ensure that conditions there were safe for the refugees’ return.
“The United States also calls again upon Burma to create the conditions conducive for Rohingya refugees’ voluntary, safe, and dignified return,” the State Department’s Brown said, referring to Myanmar by its earlier name.
Myanmar is the one that has to solve the Rohingya refugee crisis, said Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur.
“Make no mistake: the Rohingya crisis emanated from Myanmar and can only be solved in Myanmar,” Andrews said.
“The government of Myanmar has the moral and legal responsibility to end this crisis. After being forced to literally run for their lives over the border into Bangladesh, the Rohingya want, and deserve, to return home.”
Andrews said “it is reasonable” for the Bangladesh government to seek the repatriation of the Rohingya to their home villages in Myanmar.
“The international community must support this effort and ensure that repatriation is done voluntarily, safely, and with dignity,” he said.
Foreign minister Momen said the U.N. should investigate the situation in Myanmar.
“To solve the Rohingya problem, the U.N. should go to Myanmar to assess the situation of Rakhine, not Bhashan Char,” Momen said.
“Shouldn’t the most important priority of the U.N. be to look into the conditions in Rakhine to send the Rohingya back?”
Jesmin Papri in Dhaka contributed to this report.