Rohingya Muslim refugees 'injured in protests' on isolated island during UNHCR visit

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees sit on wooden benches of a navy vessel on their way to the Bhasan Char island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh, December 29, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, angry at living conditions on a remote Bangladeshi island, suffered baton injuries as they protested against the lack of access to a visiting U.N. team, two of the refugees said.

The Rohingya, who fled violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, cannot move off the flood-prone island of Bhasan Char, several hours away from the mainland by sea.

A two-member delegation from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) was joined by Bangladesh foreign ministry officials on Monday on the visit to Bhasan Char, where Bangladesh wants to transfer 100,000 of the more than a million refugees who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar.

Two refugees told Reuters by phone that they protested because Bangladesh had blocked them from speaking to the UNHCR delegates.

"They only allowed the delegates to meet a few refugees who would not say anything critical against Bangladesh," said Ali, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals from authorities.

"We wanted to speak to the U.N. officials to tell them about the real situation here," he added. "We don't have work ... how will we earn? And there is also no proper healthcare here."

They said hundreds of refugees protested and were baton-charged by police.

Despite criticism from rights groups, Bangladesh has already moved some 18,000 Rohingya to the island.

The UNHCR said it "had the opportunity to talk to a large group of refugees, predominantly young men", adding they had raised concerns about a lack of access to jobs and education. It said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" to learn of injuries.

Bangladesh's foreign ministry said a large number of Rohingya gathered and launched a demonstration during the UNHCR visit.

"At one point, the crowd got agitated and in the process some of the Rohingya reportedly got minor injuries," it said in a statement. It said the crowd had "free and frank interactions" with the U.N. officials.

Myanmar is facing genocide charges at the international court of justice in The Hague over the 2017 campaign against the Rohingya. The military denies the charges, saying it was waging a legitimate campaign against insurgents who attacked police posts.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in NEW DELHI and Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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