UN urges Dhaka to relocate Rohingya to island in ‘phased manner’

UN urges Dhaka to relocate Rohingya to island in ‘phased manner’
Image shows a housing complex where Rohingya refugees are being relocated in the Bhashan Char island of Noakhali District. (File/AFP)
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Updated 17 April 2021

UN urges Dhaka to relocate Rohingya to island in ‘phased manner’

UN urges Dhaka to relocate Rohingya to island in ‘phased manner’
  • Report follows a three-day study of remote Bhasan Char by UN experts

DHAKA: The UN has followed up a review of a remote island facility set up by Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees by calling on Dhaka to carry out the relocation process in a “phased manner.”
The recommendation comes despite warnings by rights groups that the site is vulnerable to severe weather and flooding.
A UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson in Dhaka, Charlie Goodlake, told Arab News on Saturday that the UN team is recommending that any future relocations “are undertaken in a gradual and phased manner.”
The UN planned to hold “further discussions” with Dhaka on the initiative, he said.
“It would help to ensure that the governance structure, facilities and services on the island meet the needs of Rohingya refugees living there,” Goodlake added.
The UN report released to the media late on Friday comes a month after 18 UN experts conducted their first visit to Bhasan Char island on March 17.
Soon after the UN’s visit, a 10-member team of diplomats — comprising heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands — also visited the island on April 3 to review the facilities.
Bangladesh has moved 18,500 Rohingya refugees from crammed camps in its Cox’s Bazar district to Bhasan Char, dubbed Rohingya island, since December last year.
It wants to eventually relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the overcrowded camps to the remote island, located in the Bay of Bengal and 60 km from the mainland.
Bhasan Char was built by Dhaka in 2006 using Himalayan silt and sediment to ease the overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar district. The project cost more than $360 million.
Each Bhasan Char house has five-square-meter concrete rooms with small windows, and a toilet for 11 people.
However, the UNHCR said it was concerned about the island’s vulnerability to severe weather and flooding, leading to a UN proposal in December 2019 for a “technical assessment” of the site.
The three-day visit in March marked a breakthrough in the proposal and follows attempts by the UN refugee agency to visit the island amid concerns about whether the relocation of the Rohingya refugees to the island was safe.
Similar concerns were raised by several international rights organizations, which urged Bangladesh not to relocate the Rohingya to Bhasan Char, warning that the island was located in an area prone to cyclones and could be submerged during a high tide.
Dhaka said that it had set up 120 cyclone shelters — built more than a meter above ground — which could be used as hospitals, schools and community centers throughout the year.
However, in its latest report, the UN said it “recognizes the prevailing humanitarian and protection needs of the Rohingya refugees already relocated to Bhasan Char” and proposed holding more talks on the process with Dhaka soon.
“We hope the discussions will take place as early as possible. The discussions would be on the UN’s future operational engagement on Bhasan Char, including on the policies that govern the life and wellbeing of Rohingya refugees on the island,” Goodlake told Arab News.
He said the UN team recognizes the extensive investments made by the Bangladesh government in Bhasan Char, “including the facilities and infrastructure and other offshore coastal protection measures.”
However, he said that to further mitigate risks, the UN is calling for an “emergency management plan in the case of severe weather events, including the pre-positioning of essential supplies and goods on the island.”
The UN report also recommended that Bhasan Char be managed by “civilian authorities in an inclusive and consultative manner.”
On Friday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen said that the UN had made “very good and positive observations” in its latest report.
In previous comments to Arab News, Momen also urged the UN to start its operations on Bhasan Char as it would be a “huge task to manage 100,000 refugees on the island.”
Bangladesh is currently hosting more than 1.1 million Rohingya at Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, believed to be the world’s largest refugee settlement.
The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group, many of whom fled persecution in Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be “Bengalis” from Bangladesh, even though their families have lived in the country for generations.
Almost all have been denied citizenship for decades, and are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.


Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea
Updated 18 May 2021

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea
  • ‘This is my order now to the cabinet... to refrain (from) discussing this West Philippine Sea (issue) with... anybody’

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has banned his cabinet from speaking out in public on the South China Sea dispute, after key ministers engaged in a war of words with Beijing.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing over the waterway – which China claims almost entirely – flared in March after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
While Duterte has been reluctant to confront China over the issue, his foreign and defense secretaries have repeatedly criticized Beijing for its refusal to withdraw the ships from the disputed waters.
Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted an expletive-tagged demand for the Chinese vessels to leave the area.
His online swearing prompted a rebuke from Beijing and Locsin later apologized to his Chinese counterpart.
“This is my order now to the cabinet... to refrain (from) discussing this West Philippine Sea (issue) with... anybody,” Duterte said in a recorded speech late Monday, using the local name for the sea.
“If we have to talk, we talk only among us,” Duterte told several cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who previously described the presence of Chinese boats as an “incursion.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque was allowed to address the issue in public, Duterte added.
China has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the South China Sea to be without basis.
Duterte has set aside the ruling in exchange for promises of trade and investment from China that critics say have largely not materialized.


India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths
Updated 18 May 2021

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths
  • India has recorded nearly 280,000 virus deaths since the pandemic began
  • The government on Monday announced that 17 new labs will help track variants

NEW DELHI: India’s total virus cases since the pandemic began swept past 25 million as the country registered more than 260,000 new cases and a record 4,329 fatalities in the last 24 hours.
The numbers reported Tuesday follow a trend of falling cases after infections dipped below 300,000 for the first time in weeks a day earlier.
Active cases in the country also decreased by more than 165,000 on Tuesday – the biggest dip in weeks. But deaths have continued to rise and hospitals are still swamped by patients.
India has recorded nearly 280,000 virus deaths since the pandemic began. Both the number of deaths and total reported cases are thought to be vast undercounts.
The government on Monday announced that 17 new labs will help track variants, boosting India’s genome sequencing abilities as concern grows over a potentially worrisome variant first detected here. The variant may spread more easily but the country has lagged behind in doing the testing needed to track it and understand it better.
The variant first identified in India has prompted global concern – most notably in Britain, where it has more than doubled in a week, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections.


127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
Updated 18 May 2021

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
  • The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday

MUMBAI: Some 127 people were missing Tuesday after a vessel adrift off Mumbai’s coast sank during Cyclone Tauktae, the Indian navy said as two ships and helicopters were deployed to assist in the search.
The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday as strong winds battered India’s western coast, sending huge waves crashing onto its shores and turning roads into rivers.


Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
Updated 18 May 2021

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
  • Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s representative office in Taiwan has temporarily suspended operations, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said on Tuesday, adding only that the decision was not related to the rise in coronavirus cases there.
Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 and China imposed a sweeping national security law last year to quell the unrest, prompting many activists to leave the city.
Taipei has criticized the law and opened a local office to help people who may want to leave Hong Kong.
Last year, Taiwanese officials in Hong Kong were told their visas would not be renewed unless they signed a document supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan under its “one China” policy, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau announced the decision to suspend the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan without providing an explanation. It said requests for assistance would be handled through hotlines and via the Hong Kong government website.
“The suspension is not related to the pandemic situation in Taiwan. We do not have anything further to add,” a Hong Kong government spokesperson said.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it was working on a response on the matter.


Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
Updated 18 May 2021

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
  • Group insists final negotiations to end Afghanistan war are held in Doha

KABUL: Afghan Taliban delegates were on Monday reportedly ready to take part in US-sponsored talks with the Kabul government in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News: “The talks should not pave the ground for interference from any side.

“This matter is under deliberation ... we, without doubt, say that the Istanbul meeting should be conducted in conformity with the wishes of the Afghan people and should have no imposition aspect.”

However, he said that the final negotiations should be held in Doha, Qatar where both sides resumed stalled discussions on the peace process several days ago.

“This is an opportunity for peace, and we will participate in it on the basis of our conditions ... continuation of the talks in Doha is a good point for ending the war,” he added.

The development follows the group’s decision to snub the Turkey talks after American President Joe Biden said he would be extending the US-led foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan until Sept. 11.

Initially, all troops were to have left the country by May 1 based on a key condition for a landmark accord signed between the Taliban and US delegates in Doha more than a year ago.

Mujahid did not elaborate on the conditions for the talks to resume and said that the Taliban leadership was “pondering over them.”

He pointed out that the two conditions demanded by the group for participation in future discussions included the “release of the remaining 7,000 Taliban inmates held by Kabul and delisting of their leaders from the UN blacklist.”

Mujahid added that the Taliban had discussed the conditions with Washington which had “pledged to facilitate” the group on both issues, although no date had yet been set for the talks. Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the news.

HIGHLIGHT

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

“It is a good thing; we have always said we will participate. The agenda and timing of the meeting have yet to be finalized, and we will attend it,” she told Arab News.

The Istanbul talks were rescheduled for April 24, before the Taliban announced that they would not participate in any meetings on Afghan peace until all foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Under Biden’s announcement, US-led troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the most protracted conflict in America’s history, which began nearly 20 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting in 2001.

The group has accused Washington of breaching the deal by delaying the troops’ exit, resulting in an escalation of violence across Afghanistan – with hundreds of lives lost, including civilians – which both the Taliban and the Kabul government have blamed each other for.

Fighting resumed on Monday in a number of major Afghan provinces at the end of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban during the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday.

Two weeks ago, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban, warned that Washington would abandon its push to form an interim government to replace Ghani if the Taliban insisted on boycotting the Istanbul talks.

The Istanbul meeting, under the auspices of the UN, seeks to draw a roadmap to end more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, ahead of the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that recently Washington had “secretly shown flexibility to the Taliban” on the date of departure for the remaining troops and could “complete the pullout process either in June or July.”

The Taliban, in return, had to “express leniency for attending the Istanbul meeting,” he said.

“The Taliban would have been blamed by ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the Istanbul talks. They now have a condition, want to begin the initial talks in Istanbul, but that the serious decisions and last decisive decisions be taken in Doha,” Ghazikhail added.

Torek Farhadi, an adviser for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “The Taliban are making sure they have a diplomatic presence in the (Istanbul) talks because the process of delisting them from the UN sanctions list requires to continue talks and for freeing their 7,000 prisoners.”

He said that Kabul also wanted to attend the Istanbul meeting to “give people hope that peace talks are continuing,” but added that in reality “the positions are so far apart that peace talks might continue for years. Both sides are preparing for more war. But it is clear that both sides have actors in the peace theaters as well … the sad part is civilians will suffer.”