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.

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Daudzai

Updated 6 min 35 sec ago

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Daudzai

  • Pakistan played positive role in US-Taliban peace talks, says diplomat

PESHAWAR: Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan has had put “mending political relations” between the two estranged nations as one of his top priorities.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, on Tuesday said that his primary focus would be to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan and maintain strong ties with Pakistan, especially after Islamabad’s key role in the Afghan peace process earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, the diplomat told Arab News: “Two areas have been identified to focus on with renewed vigor, such as lasting peace in Afghanistan and cementing Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in economic, social, political and other areas.”

In order to achieve these aims, he said, efforts would be intensified “to mend political relations” between the neighboring countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600-kilometer porous border and have been at odds for years. Bonds between them have been particularly strained due to a deep mistrust and allegations of cross-border infiltration by militants.

Kabul has blamed Islamabad for harboring Taliban leaders after they were ousted from power in 2001. But Pakistan has denied the allegations and, instead, accused Kabul of providing refuge to anti-Pakistan militants – a claim rejected by Afghanistan.

Daudzai said his immediate priority would be to focus on “political reconciliation” between the two countries, especially in the backdrop of a historic peace agreement signed in February this year when Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating a troop withdrawal deal between the US and the Taliban to end the decades-old Afghan conflict. “Afghanistan needs political reconciliation which the Afghan government has already been working on to achieve bottom-up harmony,” he added.

Daudzai’s appointment Monday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took place days after Islamabad chose Mohammed Sadiq as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan.

Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with all of its neighbors, Daudzai said Pakistan’s role was of paramount importance to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks. I will explore all options for a level-playing field for the success of all these initiatives,” he said, referring in part to crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which were delayed due to a stalemate in a prisoner exchange program – a key condition of the Feb. 29 peace deal.

Under the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and around 1,000 government prisoners were to be freed by March 10. So far, Afghanistan has released 3,000 prisoners, while the Taliban have freed 500. Daudzai said that while dates had yet to be finalized, the intra-Afghan dialogue could begin “within weeks.”

He added: “A date for intra-Afghan talks hasn’t been identified yet because there is a stalemate on prisoners’ release. But I am sure they (the talks) will be kicked off within weeks.”

Experts say Daudzai’s appointment could give “fresh momentum” to the stalled process and revitalize ties between the two estranged neighbors.

“Mohammed Sadiq’s appointment...could lead Kabul-Islamabad to a close liaison and better coordination,” Irfanullah Khan, an MPhil scholar and expert on Afghan affairs, told Arab News.

Daudzai said that he would be visiting Islamabad to kickstart the process as soon as the coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions were eased.

Prior to being appointed as the special envoy, he had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from April 2011 to August 2013.