The United Nations confirmed on Thursday that Bangladesh had not yet permitted it to assess the habitability of an island where the government has relocated nearly 3,500 Rohingya refugees, although Dhaka said it was prepared to facilitate U.N. participation.
This week, Bangladeshi authorities moved about 1,800 Rohingya to Bhashan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, as part of a program that government officials say aims to ease crowding at densely populated refugee camps on the mainland.
The group was the second batch of Rohingya refugees to be sent to the island since Bangladesh launched the controversial program in early December.
“[T]he U.N. has been consistent in seeking access to Bhashan Char and to the refugees,” Andrej Mahecic, acting head of the news and media unit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“The U.N. has continuously indicated that it is ready to undertake technical and protection assessments of Bhashan Char, while we have not yet been permitted to do so by the Government.”
An assessment would be “the concrete next step” in deciding whether the U.N. can be involved in the Bhashan Char project, Mahecic added, in an email response to questions from BenarNews.
“We remain ready to continue to engage in constructive dialogue with the Government and continue to request additional information from the Government regarding their plans,” he said.
When Bangladesh started the program in early December, the U.N. said at the time that it had not been involved in preparations for the mass relocation of refugees offshore and had “limited information” on the plan.
Independent assessments carried out by the United Nations “would review the safety, feasibility and sustainability of Bhashan Char as a place for refugees to live, as well as the framework for protection and the assistance and services they would be able to access on the island,” UNHCR said back on Dec. 2.
On Wednesday, a day after the second batch of refugees disembarked from navy ships at Bhashan Char, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the government against what it called “misinformation” and allegations that the stateless refugees were transported offshore by force or against their will.
“The Government would like to make it unambiguously clear that the relocation process, which was commenced … in line with the [Government’s] efforts to decongest and de-risk the camps, strictly followed the principle of voluntariness and was conducted with utmost transparency,” the ministry said in a long statement.
It was referring to refugee camps and settlements in mainland Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh, where most of the 1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Rakhine state in Myanmar have been sheltering.
“There was no question of the use of force, intimidation or the use of money to influence the decision of the participants,” the ministry added.
Bangladesh’s plan is to move 100,000 refugees to Bhashan Char in stages. The government spent about U.S. $280 million to construct housing, a large embankment, cyclone shelters and other infrastructure on the island, officials had said.
In its statement on Wednesday, the ministry also said it was willing to smooth the process for U.N. involvement in the relocation of Rohingya to Bhashan Char.
“The [Government] reiterates its stance on the involvement of the U.N in the process and is ready to facilitate participation of the U.N. as per its mandate,” it said.
Earlier this month, Minister of Foreign Affairs A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews that the government had “no objection” to the U.N.’s going to Bhashan Char but that the world body had not put in a formal written request for a visit.
BenarNews asked Mahecic, the UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, whether it was true that the U.N. had not sent a written request to the Bangladesh government. He, however, did not address this issue in his response.
Rohingya photographer arrested
Meanwhile in a joint letter, 33 prominent figures as well as refugee and human rights advocates from Bangladesh and other countries called on Bangladeshi authorities Thursday to release a Rohingya photographer, Abul Kalam, who they said was detained on Monday as he took pictures of refugees who had boarded buses leaving for Bhashan Char.
“Photography is not a crime. Abul Kalam was taking photographs of buses on their way to Bhashan Char. He was doing so in a public place, albeit in a refugee camp. The relocation to Bhashan Char is a widely publicized program of the Bangladesh government. It is by no means a secret and has been extensively covered in the media,” they wrote.
BenarNews spoke to Kalam’s wife, who is a fellow Rohingya refugee.
“Some people caught him while he was taking photos of his sister who was shifting to Bhashan Char, and handed him over to the CIC,’’ Syeda Begum said, referring to an administrator in charge of the refugee camp. “He was beaten for no fault of his, and finally sent to jail.”
Khalilur Rahman, the administrator of the Kutupalong camp, denied that Kalam was beaten.
“He possessed a fake national identity card of Bangladesh. I do not know anything more,’’ Rahman told BenarNews on Thursday.
According to Ghazi Salahuddin, officer-in-charge of the police station in the Ukhia sub-district, Kalam was arrested for suspected involvement in an attack by Rohingya on a local magistrate and a camp administrator in late May, as the officials tried to remove illegal structures at a refugee camp. Three people were injured in the attack with machetes, brickbats, and other weapons.
“We produced him before the court on Thursday [for the May incident.]. The court sent him to jail,’’ Salahuddin told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.