Exclusive: Inside the Bangladesh ‘prison island’ housing Rohingya refugees

Exclusive: Inside the Bangladesh ‘prison island’ housing Rohingya refugees

About 37 kilometres off the shoreline of Bangladesh is situated a remote island within the Bay of Bengal. For years the isle was only used by the Bangladesh navy as it has long been viewed as dangerous to inhabitants.

But in recent years, the island of Bhasan Char has become home for some 30, 000 Rohingya refugees who fled a genocide within Myanmar in 2017. Lured to relocate to the island by Bangladesh authorities, it’s now an ominous place shrouded in controversy and concern, earning itself a good unenviable nickname – ‘The Prison Island. ” 

Interactive map showing location of Bhasan Char. Graphic: Emilie Languedoc for Southeast Asia Globe

In over a dozen interviews with refugees living on Bhasan Char, refugees described various insecurities: a place along with few jobs, lack of freedom of motion, and limited access to healthcare. Yet a single fundamental grievance was out during the selection interviews – refugees dread they may never be permitted to leave.

Gazing out there into the open substance, Monoara Begum, a 53-year-old Rohingya asylum living on the isle sits on the front porch of the girl 24-square-foot shelter to the time. Housed in a row of whitened apartment blocks with bright red tiled roofing, the area structurally resembles a jail.

A resident of Bhasan Char “Prison Island, ” watches from the entry of her temporary home.

“It is a promise-breaking island. I actually made a mistake coming here, ” Begum told the Globe . “We can’t move anywhere from this tropical isle. My husband is also obtaining old, and both of us are getting old age diseases, but all of us can’t get great treatment.

She shares the small space with her daughter and spouse who have both become increasingly depressed given that they arrived on the tropical isle in 2020.

The Rohingya, a predominantly muslim minority group through Myanmar, have been persecuted by the Myanmar military and nationalists for many years. Violence spiked after a Rohingya armed team attacked a law enforcement outpost in 2017, sparking a mass exodus when the army began burning straight down their villages in Rakhine State.

Over 740, 000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh within August 2017 after the Myanmar military performed ‘clearance operations’ eliminating thousands of Rohingya people.

A man resident of Bhasan Char “Prison Island” leans against the wall in the packed refugee housing devices built on the isle.

The refugees initially agreed to move to Bhasan Char under the guarantee of improved residing conditions, ability to function, and safety through increasing attacks by armed insurgent groups in the landmass camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.

Officials claim they resettled the particular refugees, of whom 80% are women and children, to make more space in the first camps where almost 1 million Rohingya refugees currently reside in extremely poor circumstances. Bangladesh is intending to resettle at least a hundred, 000 refugees in total.

However human rights groupings are concerned that the island negotiation isn’t adequately guarded from storms and flooding. They also fear that worsening monsoons could eventually devastate the island, making those left behind trapped and in peril.   On top of this,   the prospect of food insecurity and a lack of universities and healthcare the actual island a difficult spot to live, refugees informed the Globe .

Families wander another street of Bhasan Char “Prison Isle. ”

Access to and from Bhasan Char is tightly managed by the Bangladesh navy blue and coast guard. The island can be walled off along with barbed wire secure fencing, and it’s illegal to enter without the correct permits. These restrictions make visitations from families progressively difficult. Yet hundreds have already left the island in search of much better lives. But leaving behind often comes at cost.

In recent months, dozens happen to be arrested in close by coastal towns after being discovered by law enforcement. Others danger death when smuggled out on rickety fishing boats for sale during the four to six hr journey needed to reach mainland Bangladesh.

One harrowing case occurred within August 2021, when a group of 41 Rohingya attempted to flee the island on a fishing trawler. But when the storm hit the boat, the boat capsized leaving 14 people lifeless and 13 lacking.  

According to local police who spoke towards the Globe , over two hundred refugees have fled the island within the last two years. Authorities have got arrested 55 people, including women and children, and have repeatedly delivered them back. Just for human rights groupings, the fact that refugees are taking extreme efforts to flee the island displays the excruciating conditions they face.

Residents of Bhasan Char “Prison Island” inside one of the houses built for political refugees who have fled the particular conflict in Myanmar.

“In terms of the vulnerabilities, there are restrictions upon freedom of motion within the island itself, and there is no entry to livelihood and entry to education, ” said Zaw Win, through Fortify Rights, the human rights team working in Asia.   “There are also sex based violence instances happening on the island. ”

Zaw Win went into detail about restrictions of movement, detailing that when refugees move to Bhasan Char, they may not be able to come back plus visit the mainland camping to see their families. As authorities arrange transport to and from the island, the refugees possess very little control over their own ability to move.

Despite the refugees’ statements and findings by rights groupings, Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, the government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner told the Globe how the authorities are doing everything they can to help.  

Night from Bhasan Char “Prison Island. ”

“We arrange for Rohingyas to go to their relatives in Cox’s Bazar or their relatives within Bhasan Char once a month, ” Rahman stated. “We are trying to prepare this twice per month. A lot has to do with visiting their relatives. We have to arrange a ship, bus, and other protection. “Rahman added that will authorities are attempting to supply more medical help and transportation, yet are “waiting on donations first. ” It’s unclear how many refugees desire to depart Bhasan Char nowadays, but based on Globe’s interviews, becoming kept away from their loved ones is one of the main motivators.

“We don’t feel very great if they don’t permit us to visit our relatives, ” mentioned Abdul Hamid, the 30-year-old refugee on Bhasan Char. “I want to leave right here, but where to go, there is nowhere to go. ”

Another refugee, Shiraj Mia, has been trying to get back to Chittagong, a southeastern coastal town, for over three months. Suffering from serious heart disease, doctors informed him that he needs better treatment or even risk heart attacks or worse. Given his health, he simply wants to end up being with his relatives in Cox’s Bazar.

A boat ferrys refugees to Bhasan Char “Prison Island” from the mainland.

“I could die anytime [from his illness]. We all can’t go any where from here, ” he or she said. “If I used to be in Cox’s Bazar, I could visit my relatives…Before coming here, they told all of us that I could go to Cox’s Bazar whenever I wanted. But which is not allowed. ”

In response to the particular refugee’s concerns, UNHCR has set up “protection networks, ” exactly where refugee volunteers have already been trained to recognise needs in their own communities and offer help, which includes child protection, avoidance of gender-based assault, and mental wellness assistance, Regina De La Portilla, an UNHCR communication officer in Cox’s Bazar, told the Globe.

“This being said, you may still find many challenges ahead. We need more financing to enhance activities on the island, including health insurance and mental health, but additionally livelihood activities and education, ” De La Portilla mentioned.

In addition , she mentions, the government-led project’s sustainability relies on improving online connectivity between the island and the mainland – as is the case of other islands.

While the government continues to be facilitating family trips, the connectivity with all the mainland needs to be enhanced and scaled upward so individuals possess regular travel for you to visit Cox’s Bazar to help ensure family unity. ”

Despite these acknowledgements, refugees state the island is not any place for the unwell given medical services are limited plus medication is costly. It’s a concern as well familiar with Menorah Begum as well. About six months after arriving to the island, her kid died due to an unexplainable illness.

When she inquired officials for help with medical treatment, they informed her to wait. But by the time her son was permitted to leave to receive medical attention, it had been already too late. He passed away shortly after. Begum hopes the same thing won’t happen to others such as her and prays for a better long term for her family.

“I reside a captive existence here, ” the girl said with holes rolling down her face. “The whole island is a jail. [And] there is no cure, there is no ray of hope. [On Bhasan Char] I am destitute. ”

Photos by Tanbirul Miraj Ripon designed for Southeast Asia World.