Bangladesh: Rohinyga Refugees Allegedly Tortured

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Rohingya refugees headed to the Bhasan Char island prepare to board navy vessels from the south eastern port city of Chattogram, Bangladesh on Feb.15, 2021. 
© 2021 AP Photo

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should immediately investigate allegations that security forces beat and arbitrarily detained Rohingya refugees who tried to leave Bhasan Char island, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bangladesh government has relocated nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees to the remote island without consulting international experts to ensure their safety or determining their humanitarian needs.

Bangladesh security forces on April 6, 2021 arrested and beat at least 12 refugees who were caught trying to leave the island, restricting their freedom of movement. The authorities have not informed family members of their whereabouts. On April 12, a Bangladesh sailor allegedly beat four children with a PVC pipe for leaving their quarters to play with refugee children in another area. The authorities should immediately release any refugees who are arbitrarily detained, and hold to account those responsible for abuses.

“The Bangladesh government saved countless lives by providing refuge to Rohingya people, but this doesn’t justify detaining them on an island and beating them if they try to move,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The burden Bangladesh has taken on in caring for Rohingya refugees does not negate its responsibility to ensure they are safe, and their rights are respected.”

Witnesses said that security forces beat the refugees during an interrogation in the newly built police station on Bhasan Char. According to one witness, a police officer said, “Tell your Rohingyas that if they are thinking of escape, their fate will be same.” The authorities also raided Bhasan Char shelters to identify those missing, and beat residents demanding information.

Families of two detained Rohingya said that they had no information about the whereabouts of their relatives. They also said that unidentified people claiming to be from the police had demanded a bribe to provide information.

The mother of one detained refugee said that someone claiming to be a police officer threatened to kill her son in “crossfire,” a euphemism in Bangladesh for extrajudicial executions, unless the family paid a bribe. “A police officer called me but as I did not understand his language, my niece who can speak Bangla talked to that policeman,” she said. “He threatened us, saying that we should keep ready cash, or they would target my son in a crossfire. We said we could not afford to pay and asked where my son was now. The man said, ‘Pay the money first, then your son will be safe.’”

In the April 12 incident, families and a witness said that a man in a navy uniform beat four children, ages 8 to 11, with a PVC pipe because they had crossed into another block to play with other children. These children are from among a group of refugees rescued at sea who are sequestered on Bhasan Char. Photographs shared by the refugees show severe bruises from the beating.

One mother said that the beating was so brutal, she feared her child would be killed: “Our children are not allowed to go outside the block where we are living. When a sailor found that the children had gone to another block, he came out of his outpost and started beating the children mercilessly. My son could not run away while the others managed to escape. I begged the sailor not to beat him, but he continued for another two or three minutes. What if my child had died?”

The Bangladesh government says it wants to relocate at least 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited silt island in the Bay of Bengal, to ease the overcrowding in the camps set up in Cox’s Bazar where many Rohingya settled after fleeing an ethnic cleansing campaign by the Myanmar military. Several thousand have already been relocated from the refugee camps, despite serious concerns over the island’s habitability.

The authorities started populating the island by first taking 306 Rohingya refugees stranded at sea to Bhasan Char, initially to quarantine them to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, but is continuing to hold them there a year later.

Among the refugees caught trying to escape from Bhasan Char, were some that were rescued at sea in May 2020. Authorities at the time had promised that they would be reunited with their families. However, one refugee told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had refused to heed their plea to be returned to the camps in Cox’s Bazar: “The officers used a rubber stick to beat the detainees. These people did not commit a crime. They were just desperate after so many false promises from the authorities here that they would take back them to their families.”

These security force abuses occurred shortly after a visit by foreign heads of mission to Bhasan Char on April 3. A United Nations team also was allowed to visit the island from March 17 to 20.

“Bangladesh authorities should act promptly and impartially to put an end to the beatings and wrongful detention of refugees or risk the international goodwill they have earned,” Adams said. “Donor countries and UN agencies need to be asking serious questions about the conditions in Bhasan Char – and getting answers.”