Rohingya divided over relocation as awareness campaign begins

Rohingya refugee children play on a swing at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 March 2019

Rohingya divided over relocation as awareness campaign begins

  • Camp authorities have been meeting Rohingya community leaders and imams so they can motivate other refugees to move

DHAKA: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are divided over an island that will become their new home, as government officials try to persuade them to relocate voluntarily.
Bhashan Char in the Bay of Bengal has been earmarked as the new home for Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar following a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
The island can accommodate around 100,000 people but activists, climate change experts and rights groups have raised concerns about the plan.
But the Bangladesh government has launched an awareness campaign about life away from the teeming refugee camps.
“We are talking to them about the merits and demerits of the present camp life and the new island life. Many of them realize that further expansion of this camp is not at all possible in this small piece of land in Cox’s Bazar,” one official told Arab News requesting anonymity.
“We have briefed the Rohingyas about the livelihood offerings on the island. For instance, the Rohingyas will get the opportunity for agricultural farming, poultry and cattle rearing, fishing.
“This scope for livelihoods attracted many Rohingyas to relocation. On the island they will have a permanent structured house, which is better than the present plastic sheds and tarpaulins. These better facilities also encouraged a few Rohingyas during my meeting with them,” said the official, who works for the administrative authority in charge of the refugee camps.
But there have been mixed reactions to Bhashan Char.
Sayed Ullah, general secretary of a Rohingya rights group, said nobody was in the mood for island life. “I don’t think any of my fellow (Rohingya) will agree for any voluntary relocation. We don’t want any relocation to any island. We want to be repatriated to our motherland,” he told Arab News.
“Although the present camp life is very hard to endure, we want to stay here until our repatriation.”
But another refugee, Ashraf Alam, welcomed the chance of a better life. “In this over-congested camp we don’t get any opportunity for (earning a) livelihood,” he told Arab News. “If I have the opportunity for farming, fishing … I would like to consider the relocation ideas. For many months I could not feed my children properly. To me, it’s a new opportunity to live a better life.”
Camp authorities have been meeting Rohingya community leaders and imams so they can motivate other refugees to move. Expressions of interest in relocation are also being registered.
Bhashan Char is around 30 kilometers away from the mainland and the only mode of transport for its residents will be boats, with a journey time of three hours or longer depending on the weather.
The main fear regarding relocation is that the whole island might go under water in the event of a cyclone or high tide.
Nobody has lived on the island before. It was declared a forest reserve in 2013 and it also used to be a cattle-rearing field.
Bangladesh began construction work on the island last year and spent around $280 million on shelters, embankments and community spaces. A flood defense embankment has been erected to protect refugee housing during weather events.
More than a million Rohingya refugees are living in camps in Cox’s Bazar, dwarfing the district’s host population.
UN aid agencies have yet to give their approval on the relocation plan, saying the safety and protection of refugees are the most important considerations.
Caroline Gluck, regional public information officer of UNHCR, told Arab News there were ongoing discussions with Dhaka about the “critical protection and operational issues” that needed to be addressed before any voluntary relocations took place to ensure refugees had safe and sustainable living conditions if they chose to relocate.
She said the UN was engaging constructively with the government on its plan and appreciated its efforts to find “alternative safe locations” for refugees to settle which could help de-congest the overcrowded settlements in Cox’s Bazar.
“However we have only been able to undertake one brief assessment visit last September. The UN and (its) partners have offered to carry out and support further assessments,” she added.
The government is pressing ahead with the relocation plan.
Liberation War Affairs Minister A.K.M. Mozammel Haque told the media last week that Bhashan Char had been made suitable. “Foreign organizations should not concern themselves over the matter and should only deal with humanitarian aspects.”
There is no timeline for relocation and the preparation work is continuing, officials told Arab News.


Post-Brexit talks gear up for fish fight between EU, UK

Updated 4 min 6 sec ago

Post-Brexit talks gear up for fish fight between EU, UK

  • Industry and financial services are much more important in economic terms
  • Every coastal member state wanted to catch as many fish as possible, despite dwindling stocks and scientific warnings
KILKEEL, Northern Ireland: When it comes to UK-European Union relations, there’s nothing like slapping a fish around. After all, both sides have been contesting who rules their waves practically since the United Kingdom became a member in 1973.
So it’s not so surprising that once the United Kingdom officially leaves the EU on Friday night, one of the first things the two sides will wrestle over during negotiations on their post-divorce relationship is the comparatively tiny fisheries industry.
“Perhaps in many ways, fisheries is the acid test of Brexit,” said British politician and leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
Industry and financial services are much more important in economic terms. But somehow fish and chips in Britain and sole meuniere on the continent stir much stronger emotions.
“For example, our car industry and chemicals industry alone are worth 20 times the value of the fishing industry.” said Chris Davies, an English Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament who is head of the EU’s fisheries committee until he leaves on Friday.
“It is much more important, of course, to the economy in Britain as a whole that we get access for those products,” Davies said.
That doesn’t ring right in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, and other UK ports where resentment against EU fishing policies that allow vessels from other nations in the bloc to catch stocks in rich British waters runs deep.
“This fleet has been stymied now for, what, 30, 30-plus years in terms of fish being taken off us and given to other member states. It has been a struggle,” said Alan McCulla, CEO of the local ANIFPO fishing cooperative.
“Fishermen here have lost thousands of tons of fishing opportunities valued at millions of pounds,” McCulla said.
Brexiteers have thrived for years on similar words of perceived wrongdoing by faceless bureaucrats encroaching on age-old British sovereignty. And no one has done that more effectively than Farage, who has been driving the UK toward the EU’s exit door for decades, mostly from inside the European Parliament itself — where he served as a British MEP for over two decades.
Farage knows how the briny whiff of the sea tugs at the nation’s heartstrings.
“The greatness of Britain has always been what we’ve done on the seas, whether it’s through the Royal Navy or through our merchant fleets,” Farage said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So fisheries is actually — symbolically — very, very important.”
Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats up the River Thames to Britain’s Parliament in last-ditch campaigning before the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. It turned out that every bit helped, as Britain stunningly decided to leave the bloc with a narrow 52 percent-48 percent margin.
Fish in waters off Britain were still abundant in the 1970s and fishing towns still thrived.
But for just about the duration of Britain’s membership, stocks of North Sea cod to English Channel sole were in decline. And for British fishermen it was easy to point fingers at foreign vessels and EU headquarters in Brussels. Every coastal member state wanted to catch as many fish as possible, despite dwindling stocks and scientific warnings.
First, the EU forced boats to stay in ports and restricted quotas, limiting access to fish. And when British fishermen then saw EU boats in their shared waters, anger came naturally.
The broad promise of Brexit always was to regain control and there is a physical sense of control when a 200-nautical mile zone is set for the UK, instead of the current 12 miles.
“The UK should determine what level of access from EU boats is allowed in. It shouldn’t be a free-for-all just because they’ve been there for years and years. The rules have changed, and we’re taking back control of our own waters,” said Brian Chambers, who owns the “Boy Paul” with his brother and mainly fishes off the coast of Ireland and the Isle of Man for crab and scallops. He voted “leave.”
Farage says Brexit could make sure boom years lie ahead for Britain’s workforce of 8,000 fishermen that nets just under €1 billion ($1.1 billion) worth of annual catches.
“If we get fisheries right, we will bring tens of thousands of jobs back to our coastal communities,” he said.
However, the EU has already made it clear negotiations won’t be that simple. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s office has already informed diplomats from the 27 member states that “reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained.” That means pretty much looking for the status quo that UK fishermen hate so much.
And the EU can also play the history card.
“European vessels have been fishing in those waters forever. The Vikings would have dragged a net behind their longboats when they came over 1,000 years ago,” Davies, of the EU parliament fisheries committee, said.
“So, not surprisingly, the Dutch and the French and others are saying ‘we want this to continue, historically, it’s our right,’” he said.
Furthermore, while Britons may have their fish-rich waters, the EU has an even richer consumer market.
“British fishermen are going to have to accept that so long as they are selling 70% of all the fish they catch into the European continental market, their bargaining power is not that great,” Davies said.
Again, fishermen can already feel the squeeze. Even if they are revered and romanticized for being some of the last true hunters in Europe, many have long been squeezed out economically. As fish needed to be protected, they felt the politicians didn’t protect them. The promise of Brexit gave them a new hope, but now the realities of hard-nosed negotiations set in.
The fear is that their desire to get better ownership of their fishing grounds might just become the merest of pawns in the talks between both sides.
McCulla of the ANIFPO cooperative is trying to look at the bright side.
“I’ve no doubt that Europeans will still be able to fish in UK waters in the future,” he said. “But the important difference is that they will have to have that access under the terms of UK PLC, not under the terms of Brussels. And in the future Britannia will rule Britannia’s waves.”