DHAKA: There should be no relocation of Rohingya refugees until measures for their protection are agreed on, a UN official said Friday, adding that the relocation process “could be slowed down a little bit.”
UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee was in Bangladesh assessing the condition of Rohingya refugees, also visiting an island where the government plans to relocate 100,000 of them this year.
Hundreds of thousands of people from the Rohingya Muslim minority have arrived in Bangladesh since a military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar triggered an exodus, straining resources in the impoverished country.
Lee thanked Bangladeshi authorities for allowing her to witness the relocation preparation.
She urged the government to allow the UN to carry out a full technical and humanitarian assessment, including a security one, before making further plans to house people on the island.
“It goes without saying that no relocation should even be contemplated until the protection framework for any refugees who do relocate is agreed upon,” she said. “To date, there have been no discussions with the humanitarian community on the protection framework for the island.”
The relocation process could be “slowed down a little bit” unless certain parameters were fulfilled, she added.
Lee urged the government to share a feasibility study that was carried out before building work started on the island.
The muddy silt islet emerged from the sea two decades ago and is known locally as Bhashan Char.
The government has spent $280 million to make it habitable and protected from high tides during cyclone season.
Lee was skeptical about Rohingya repatriation.
Many of those who fled Myanmar hailed from western Rakhine state, where the UN says the military carried out an ethnic cleansing operation against the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are regarded in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived there for generations.
“It is clear that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh cannot return to Myanmar in the near future. Now that the election in Bangladesh has concluded, I encourage the government to begin to engage in longer-term planning and prepare the local population for this reality," she said. “A failure to do so will not only have negative consequences for the refugee population but also for Bangladesh, including most significantly, the host community, who have already given so much to accommodate the refugees.”
She added it would not be “pragmatically feasible at the moment” to repatriate Rohingya refugees to a third country and rejected the idea of establishing a “safe zone” in Rakhine state, which Bangladesh had previously suggested. It was not appropriate, said Lee.
“We have seen in history what happened in safe zones in some other countries. They gathered inside the safe zones and all were killed. The campaign of violence against the Rohingya continues, with the (Myanmar) security forces slowly bleeding the remaining Rohingya population and continuing to force them to flee to Bangladesh,” she said.
She expressed her concern about the recent trend of Rohingyas coming to Bangladesh through other countries. Around 1,300 refugees have entered from India in the last three weeks.
Lee will submit her findings and observations in a report next month.