Opponents of Myanmar military rule hold ‘silent strike’

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DHAKA: Rohingya refugees have welcomed the beginning of the month of Ramadan with a sense of solitude and isolation on Bhashan Char island, where thousands were been moved by Bangladeshi authorities from the overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar.

Over 18,500 Rohingya Muslims have been relocated to the remote island in the Bay of Bengal since December last year, despite criticism from rights groups and the UN Refugee Agency over the site’s vulnerability to severe weather and flooding.

Bangladesh says it has built housing units and infrastructure on the island for 100,000 refugees to take the pressure off Cox’s Bazar, which already hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar.

While authorities have on numerous occasions said that the relocation is voluntary and the Rohingya were happy to start their new lives on the island, some of them say they are missing their previous camps, especially as Ramadan, which is traditionally a time for community, started earlier this week.

“Here I feel very lonely as my siblings, parents and most of the relatives are living at Cox’s Bazar. During last year’s Ramadan, we all were together and had some memorable family get-togethers,” Mohammad Alam, a 37-year-old Rohingya refugee in Bhasan Char, told Arab News on Thursday.

“Now I maintain communications with the family members through mobile phone, but (I am) not sure when I can meet them again,” he said.

“Ramadan is a very special month for us as Muslims, and we all love to stay together with the friends and family during this holy month.”

Khaleda Begum, a 20-year-old mother of three, finds her Ramadan days more difficult at Bhashan Char compared to Cox’s Bazar.

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Bangladesh, setting an example to the world, has given shelter to more than 730,000 Muslim Rohingya who were driven out of Myanmar by its genocidal government since 2017. Click here to read more.

“I used to work as a volunteer for an NGO at Cox’s Bazar where I received $150 as a monthly salary. In addition to relief aid, I was able to provide nutritious food to my family with the money I earned,” she said. “Here I have no earning scope at the moment, and I couldn’t arrange any special diet for my family during this month of fasting.”

Her family is now solely dependent on aid agencies.  

“We get rice, lentils, edible oil, onions, sugar, etc. as relief aid. But the children want to have fish or chicken. So, sometimes I sell a portion of my aid to the local market and try to buy some fish which is also scarce,” Begum said.

Mohammad Asad, 37, who relocated to Bhasan Char with eight family members, said that providing them with healthy food has become a big concern for him this Ramadan.

“In previous years, we used to receive a variety of food aid during Ramadan and the quantity was also sufficient. We could manage some other necessary things from the local market by selling some of our relief. But now we receive less, which puts my family into hardship,” he said, adding that freedom of movement was also greater at Cox’s Bazar.

“We are not allowed to move so far from our living place. Since it’s an island there is also not enough space. So, we remain almost confined within a certain area,” Asad told Arab News.

With assistance from NGOs such as Islamic Relief Bangladesh, Human Appeal, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, and Qatar Charity, the government says it has organized special Ramadan food packages for the refugees in Bhashan Char.

“This is a one-time special food package in addition with the regular monthly food aid. We have the data of all the families living here and each of the family received a Ramadan special package,” Mohammad Khalilur Rahman Khan, of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, who is in charge of the island camp, told Arab News.

“We are also considering special gifts on the occasion of Eid Al-Fitr for the Rohingyas on the island,” he said, adding that the agency is still looking for an Eid aid sponsor.

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