UN, Bangladesh sign deal to help Rohingya on island
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – The United Nations and the government of Bangladesh on Saturday signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to protect and manage Rohingya refugees on an island in the Bay of Bengal where thousands of them were relocated from camps near the Myanmar border, the UN said in a statement.
More than 19,000 of the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh have already been moved to Bhasan Char Island by the government, and the UN said one of the main reasons for signing the memorandum was to start serving this population.
The government had previously said it had a plan to relocate 100,000 refugees to the island in phases from camps in Cox’s Bazar district.
The new deal came as a paradigm shift as the UN and other humanitarian groups criticized the relocation, saying the 30-year-old island in the country’s Noakhali district was uninhabitable. But the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insisted that the island was developed by spending more than $ 112 million, and it was no longer a vulnerable area, which was regularly submerged by monsoon rains. The island now has dykes, hospitals, schools and mosques, according to the government.
After Saturday’s deal, authorities announced that another 81,000 refugees would be relocated to the island over the next three months.
Despite vehement protests from the UN, a team from the international body visited the island in March when the UN began to change its mind.
In a statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the new agreement was a further expression of Bangladesh’s “generosity and support for the Rohingya people until they can return safely and sustainably in Myanmar “.
The agreement also allows for close cooperation between the government and the UN. on services and activities for the growing number of Rohingya refugees living on the island.
The statement said the UN had discussions with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, as well as those already on the island, before the agreement was signed.
“These cover the key areas of protection, education, vocational training, livelihoods and health, which will help refugees to lead a decent life on the island and better prepare them for a lasting return to Myanmar in the future, ”the statement said.
Johannes Van Der Klaauw, representative of UNHCR, said the organization had seen the island and believed that “significant infrastructure” had been put in place by the government of Bangladesh to offset environmental risks.
Klaauw also said the memorandum states that the movement of refugees back and forth across the island to major camps in southern Bangladesh will be allowed on a conditional basis.
Refugees will also have the opportunity to earn a living from odd jobs that will be accessible once aid organizations are established on the island.
“If ever future refugees move to Bhasan Char, it is on an informed and voluntary basis and they have freedom of movement around Char (the island). Third, we have also indicated in this memorandum that the management of the settlements is in civilian hands and is humanitarian in nature because these islands started out as a naval base and there are still naval personnel, but once whether we start to cooperate for the UN or for the UNHCR, it is important that we maintain the humanitarian and civilian character of such a settlement, ”he said.
But most Rohingya refugees say they don’t want to move.
A woman who had moved to the island with her family earlier this year aboard a Navy ship that carried batches of refugees to the island, said many like her escaped on boats to return in the camp because life on the island is difficult for the refugees.
“If people stay there for a few years, they could all start to have mental problems,” she said, adding that medical facilities and other aids were not very well established on the island. She did not want to be named, fearing retaliation.
Amir Hamza, 63, another refugee said he would not move to the island.
“I will go to the country where I was born, my father and my grandfather were born. I have love for this country, and I agree to go to this country. I do not agree to go to another country, an island or any place, even if I am offered milk and rice on a golden plate. I am ready and happy to go to my country, my land and my home.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist army began a harsh crackdown on the Muslim ethnic group following an insurgent attack. They joined hundreds of thousands of others who fled to Bangladesh over the decades.
Bangladesh has tried to start returning refugees to Myanmar bilaterally in recent years, but no one was willing to go. Hasina has repeatedly told the UN and other international partners that his administration will not force any refugees to return to Myanmar, but urged them to put pressure on Myanmar to create a safe environment to facilitate their voluntary return. .
The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in Myanmar, rendering them stateless and facing other forms of state sanctioned discrimination.
A 2018 UN-sponsored investigation recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for violence against the Rohingya.
Jain reported from New Delhi.