Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh must be given the right to participate in decisions affecting their lives and speak for themselves, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing.
The briefing, “Let us speak for our rights”, outlines how exclusion from decision-making is impacting the human rights of Rohingya refugees – from freedom of expression, assembly and movement to access to healthcare and education. The briefing also calls for a full and thorough investigation into allegations that Rohingya refugees have been subjected to extrajudicial executions.
“For decades, the Rohingya were subjected to persecution and discrimination in Myanmar, with hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes because of crimes against humanity committed against them. Now, three years since their displacement, they are still suffering and prevented from speaking up for their rights,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International.
“While the Bangladeshi authorities have taken many positive steps to support the Rohingya refugees, there is a lack of transparency in decisions, which almost entirely exclude Rohingya involvement. What is needed is a clear policy that is inclusive of Rohingya voices to ensure their human rights are properly protected.”
Amnesty International is also calling on the international community to support and work with the Bangladeshi authorities to develop the policy as part of their international cooperation and assistance to protect the Rohingya refugees.
Freedom of Movement and Liberty
In May, the Bangladeshi authorities took more than 300 Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char, a remote island made up entirely of silt, that has yet to be assessed by the UN for its habitability. The refugees were part of a group of nearly 1,400 Rohingya men, women, and children who risked their lives by taking deadly boat journeys to Malaysia. They returned to Bangladesh’s coastal waters after being refused entry and turned back to sea by the Malaysian authorities.
Bangladesh’s navy rescued their boat and towed them to the island, where the country has proposed to relocate a further 103,200 Rohingya refugees.
Amnesty International spoke to two Rohingya women and one man in Bhashan Char together with another eight family members of 13 Rohingya refugees who are currently on the island.
In two interviews, Rohingya refugees told Amnesty International that they heard accounts of sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of police and navy officials on the island. Amnesty International is calling on the Bangladeshi authorities to conduct a full and thorough investigation into these allegations.
Rohingya refugees said that they share a room with two to five people of roughly 50 square feet, a space just about enough for one person. There are 16 of these rooms in each shed and only two toilets. All they were provided with on arrival were a piece of clothing, a mosquito net and a plate. Many of them have had their bed sheet stitched into clothing by some Rohingya women with sewing skills. They said that food is distributed twice a day and they are tired of having the same food since they arrived on the island. The only healthcare facility is a mobile clinic operated by the Navy that opens for four hours a day between 8am and 12pm. Refugees told Amnesty International that they were often not allowed to leave their sheds.
The prolonged confinement of the Rohingya refugees on the island is a violation of Articles 9 and 12 of Bangladesh’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right of everyone’s liberty and freedom to choose their residence within a territory.
“Bangladeshi authorities should safely transport all the Rohingya refugees currently on Bhashan Char back to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and ensure that the refugees are consulted, without coercion, about any future plans to relocate them to the island,” said David Griffiths.
Right to Life
More than 100 Rohingya refugees were victims of alleged extrajudicial executions between August 2017 and July 2020, according to Bangladeshi human rights organization Odhikar. Yet none of these cases have been investigated and no suspected perpetrators have been brought to justice.
Amnesty International spoke to family members of five Rohingya refugees who were victims of alleged extrajudicial executions in Cox’s Bazar. Every incident has a strikingly similar narrative where the victims were killed during a “gunfight” with members of law enforcement agencies who claimed that they only opened fire in retaliation. Three of the five Rohingya men were reportedly picked up from their homes by the police and were then found dead, said their family members.
Bangladeshi authorities must note the allegations and concerns of the Rohingya families and civil society and launch full, independent, prompt and impartial investigations into all alleged extrajudicial executions and ensure that those suspected of responsibility are prosecuted in fair trials, without recourse to the use of the death penalty.
Right to Healthcare
As of August 23, 2020, six Rohingya refugees had died from COVID-19, and 88 members of the community had tested positive with the virus. However, these numbers were based on tests conducted on 3,931 refugees, which is less than 1 percent of the Rohingya population in the camps.
This may well represent a significant under-reporting, as very few Rohingya refugees volunteer to be tested at the healthcare facilities run by the humanitarian agencies due to fears of being separated from family or coerced into isolation, and their experiences of disrespectful behavior from medical staff. This is compounded by the lack of clear and widely accessible information about healthcare services available to the Rohingya refugees, said an official of a prominent healthcare provider in the camp.
“The staff behave very badly with us. When we speak in our mother tongue, they look at us and laugh. It makes me very nervous,” said a Rohingya teenager.
Authorities and humanitarian agencies must take note of patients’ concerns and experience at the healthcare facilities and address any failings accordingly, as part of monitoring, evaluation, and targeted training to improve the quality of healthcare service in the camps.
Gender-Based Violence and Discrimination
Amnesty International interviewed 10 Rohingya women about gender-based violence and discrimination in the camps. Five of them said the frequency of violence against women had increased, particularly domestic violence during COVID-19, as more men are at home. Women said that their husbands, having lost the opportunity to work, put pressure on them to bring in money, and were violent towards them in the household. Four of the 10 women believed that discrimination and violence against women had been a constant factor in the camps irrespective of the pandemic.
Rohingya women in the camps shared accounts of human trafficking, sexual harassment and discrimination with Amnesty International. In some camps, community leaders decided not to allow women to go to work during the pandemic.
Women’s representation is highly disproportionate and discriminatory in community meetings in the camps where only one or two women would be invited along with 50 men, said a 29-year-old Rohingya woman from camp 1W.
“Rohingya women and children, who represent more than half of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar, are at risk of many forms of harassment and discrimination. The authorities and humanitarian agencies must ensure that all allegations of trafficking, sexual harassment and discrimination are investigated and that women are genuinely consulted about actions and decisions that affect them,” said David Griffiths.
Freedom of Expression and Right to Information
On August 24, one year since the Bangladeshi authorities restricted access to high-speed internet in the refugee camps, the country’s Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen announced that the restrictions would finally be lifted. However, Rohingya refugees told Amnesty International that although in some parts of the camps the internet speed has improved, it is still not widely available. “I don’t get proper network. I have to climb up to higher places to get [better] speed,” said one Rohingya man in camp 12.
The restriction had both deprived Rohingya refugees of life-saving information about COVID-19 whilst also adding a sense of frustration for those who have family members and relatives outside Bangladesh that they could not contact.
On August 5, 2020, police detained a Rohingya youth for using wi-fi internet at a shop in Jamtoli in camp 15. “Is using wi-fi a crime?” he asked the police officials. They responded that Rohingyas could not use wi-fi internet. “Finally, after one hour they released me and returned my mobile phone and told me not to use wi-fi next time,” he told Amnesty International.
Right to Education
In January 2020, Bangladesh announced that Rohingya children would get the opportunity to study the Myanmar curriculum initially between grades six and nine as they transition from an existing informal education program. This plan was scheduled to be piloted with 10,000 children in the first half of the year, with provisions to scale up and expand to more children across other grades. According to UNICEF there are more than 400,000 school-age Rohingya children between three to 18 years old in the refugee camp.
However, the pandemic and subsequent restrictions on services in the camps have not only shut down existing learning facilities but delayed implementation of the Myanmar curriculum. The delay in the implementation of the program means that Rohingya children, particularly those who have completed grade nine and for who there is still no provision of education, will continue to miss out on education.
“Bangladesh’s government must ensure that COVID-19 does not become another excuse to deprive Rohingya children of their right to access education. The international community must support the Bangladeshi authorities with funds and resources to implement the Myanmar curriculum,” said David Griffiths.
More than 50 Rohingya refugees, as well as members of the host community, Rohingya diaspora, human rights activists and humanitarian staff were interviewed for the briefing. Amnesty International and other human rights bodies have called for the participation of Rohingya refugees in decision-making by both government and agencies about their situation and future including the repatriation process for their safe return to their homeland.
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