DHAKA: A deal for the United Nations to start work on a remote Bangladeshi island where the government has sent thousands of Rohingya refugees offers no guarantee they will be allowed to move freely to the mainland, according to a copy of the agreement.

The Bangladesh government has moved nearly 19,000 Rohingya refugees, members of a persecuted mostly Muslim minority from Myanmar, to Bhasan Char island from border camps, despite protests by refugees and opposition from rights groups, who have likened it to an island jail and said some relocations were involuntary.

Refugees have called for freedom of movement between the remote and floodprone island, several hours off the coast, and the sprawling mainland camps near the port town of Cox’s Bazar. Dozens have died in recent months attempting to flee on rickety boats.

A leaked copy of the agreement says the United Nations would be permitted unhindered access to the population and further relocations would be voluntary.

Leaked agreement says UN will be permitted unhindered access to the refugees

But it said any travel between the island and mainland would be on needs basis, the precise details of which would be determined between the United Nations and Bangladesh, though refugees can move on and within Bhasan Char for their daily activities.

A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, which had previously refused to provide humanitarian services on Bhasan Char until assessments were completed, said the agreement signed in early October “clearly states that refugees moving to Bhasan Char will do so on a voluntary basis.” “No restrictions are contained within the MoU text, which notes that precise modalities will subsequently be agreed,” said Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for UNHCRs regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, adding that though the text was not public it was available to “key stakeholders involved in the Rohingya humanitarian response”.

In an Oct 9 statement, the agency said the agreement covered key areas of protection, education, skills-training, livelihoods and health, which will help support the refugees to lead decent lives on the island and better prepare them for sustainable return to Myanmar in the future.

Spokespeople for the Bangladeshi government were not available for comment but one official, who declined to be identified because they were not authorised to speak to media, questioned the need for free movement.

“Why will we will offer them freedom of movement? We are providing everything they need. They will have to stay in the camps until they go back to Myanmar,” the official told Reuters.

Bangladesh says another 81,000 refugees will be moved to the island in coming months.

The deal refers to Rohingya as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals/refugees”, reflecting the refusal of Bangladesh, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to confer refugee status on the group.

In a statement on Friday, the non-profit organisation Fortify Rights, which said it had examined the agreement, called on the United Nations and Bangladesh to revise it to include freedom of movement to the mainland.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2021

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