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Rohingya refugees feel trapped on Bangladesh island, fear monsoons: HRW

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Rohingya refugees bathe at a beach in Pulau Idaman, a small island off the coast of East Aceh in northern Sumatra. (Photo by AFP)

Rohingya refugees kept on a Bangladeshi island have expressed fears of being exposed to severe climate during the looming monsoon season and having to put up with “inadequate” health and educational facilities, a rights group said.

Nearly 18,800 refugees have been moved from the Cox's Bazar region -- where some 850,000 people live in squalid and cramped conditions after being forced to flee their homes in Myanmar by the military and extremist Buddhist mobs -- to the low-lying muddy island of Bhashan Char in the Bay of Bengal, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on Monday.

While the Bangladeshi government insists that the relocation is voluntary, the HRW report says the refugees had been moved "without full, informed consent" and prevented from returning to the mainland, citing interviews with 167 Rohingya refugees.

The refugees further spoke of a shortage of health facilities and education for their children, the 58-page report added, pointing out that others feared the monsoon season -- due to begin this month -- could expose them to high winds and flooding on the island.

A spokesman for the prime minister's office in Dhaka further announced that another 80,000 Rohingya refugees would also be transferred to the island soon, according to an AFP report.

The authorities further emphasized that the island would be safe from cyclones and its facilities are far better than the existing camps in Cox's Bazar.

While the HRW acknowledged that Dhaka had been "generous and compassionate" in sheltering the Rohingya -- most of whom fled Myanmar after a brutal military crackdown in 2017 – it also emphasized that their rights should be protected.

"The Bangladesh government is finding it hard to cope with over a million Rohingya refugees, but forcing people to a remote island just creates new problems," HRW's director of migrant and refugee rights, Bill Frelick, said in a statement. "International donors should assist the Rohingya, but also insist that Bangladesh return refugees who want to return to the mainland or if experts say island conditions are too dangerous or unsustainable." 

Slamming the HRW report, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said, "Whatever resources we have, we have tried to provide the best of services to these people."

"Their nations are very developed... If they have so much sympathy, let them take them back to their country," Momen further emphasized, referring to the New York-based HRW. "I am sorry we cannot have better facilities because we are not a rich country. We cannot afford to provide more things."

Meanwhile, a boat filled with dozens of Rohingya refugees landed off the Indonesian coast on Friday after a months-long journey -- the latest in a wave of arrivals from the cramped camps in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi police officers have also arrested Rohingya Muslims trying to flee Bhashan Char, while thousands protested against conditions on the island last week during a visit by the UN refugee agency.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims were killed, injured, arbitrarily arrested, or raped by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs mainly between November 2016 and August 2017 in what the UN described as genocide. Some 800,000 other Rohingya survived only by fleeing to Bangladesh, where they live in cramped camps.

The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and considered illegal immigrants, despite their ancestral roots dating back centuries.

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