posted on Sun 29 Apr 2018 3:05 PM
Dispatches from the Field: Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Rohingya Refugees

Following a stopover in Kuwait City, which included a dinner hosted by the Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah, the Council delegation travelled to Cox’s Bazar, its first stop on the visiting mission.

Meetings with UN and Bangladesh Government Officials in Cox’s Bazar

Upon its arrival in Cox’s Bazar yesterday, the Council delegation held meetings with members of UN organisations working in Cox’s Bazar, including UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Mia Seppo, and representatives from UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, and UN Women. Seppo discussed the UN Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya, which was launched on 16 March. The Plan is requesting US $951 million, but so far the response has been underwhelming. She noted that if this underfunded response continues, it will be difficult for the UN team to handle the mounting needs during the monsoon season. In addition, members were given a clear picture of the impact of the large influx of refugees into Bangladesh over the last eight months.

Last year, over a two-month period, following the violence in Rakhine State in late August, the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar more than quadrupled. Among the effects of this influx of refugees have been price hikes for basic goods and a strain on infrastructure, health and water services. Of immediate concern for many of the agencies is the potential need to relocate a large number of the refugees in the event of flooding or landslides during the upcoming monsoon season. Council members were briefed on the preparations being made for the monsoon season, and the government’s plans to relocate refugees to the island of Bhashan Char.

Council members in the discussion with UN agencies expressed appreciation for the work they were doing and acknowledged the difficulty of the situation for the Bangladesh government. Among the areas that members were particularly interested in were the cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh and the humanitarian conditions in the camp. There was also interest in the impact of the refugee crisis on the host community, and what the longer-term effects were likely to be. Questions were raised about the protection of women and reproductive health services in the camps.

Following the meeting with UN officials, Council members heard from Bangladeshi officials, including Acting Foreign Secretary M. Khurshed Alam, Minister of State Mohammed Shahriar Alam, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam, and representatives of law enforcement agencies. Among the issues covered were the Bangladesh government’s capacity to cope with the rapid influx of refugees since August, the importance of continued pressure from the international community to help resolve this issue, increasing tensions on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar since August 2017, and the government’s preparedness for the difficulties that will likely come with the monsoon period. Members were told that there has been little progress on the 17 January bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, in which the two countries agreed to complete voluntary repatriation in two years.

Visit to Zero Line and Kutupalong Camp

Today (29 April), the Council delegation visited the no man’s land or ‘Zero Line” and Kutupalong Camp in Cox’s Bazar. Over six thousand people live on a strip of land on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh (i.e. the Zero Line). While the land is technically within Myanmar’s territory, a high wire fence, put up after the exodus of Rohingya late last year, separates this area from the rest of Myanmar. A river acts as the line between this area and Bangladesh and those living here can go across a bridge to Bangladesh for food and health care but cannot go back to Myanmar.

Council members met with some of the Rohingya here and heard their stories of why they had left their homes. Many were emotional, as they spoke with Council members of family members who had been killed and of what they had lost in being forced to flee. Some referred to the issue of citizenship and spoke of how in the past their families had been issued National Registration Cards (NRC) entitling them to full citizenship having qualified under the 1948 Citizenship Act. Following the 1982 Citizenship Law and the 1989 “scrutiny exercise” many found they were no longer considered citizens.The Identity Card for National Verification(NVC), introduced in 2015, is now needed to apply for citizenship.

The Council’s next stop was the Kutupalong Camp. The once thickly forested area is now, according to UNHCR, the largest refugee camp in the world with close to 500,000 people. Along the way, at several points, there were refugees lining the roads with signs that expressed their concerns including: “We want justice” and “No NVC”.

The first stop was an overlook that allowed Council members to get a sense of the extent of the camp and speak to UN and Bangladeshi officials. Council members asked questions about the living conditions of the refugees, including education and health facilities. Having driven on the dirt road in the camp and seen the terrain the refugees’ bamboo shelters were nestled in brought into focus the great damage that could be done by heavy monsoon rains.

Several Council members asked questions about the preparations being made for potential flooding and were shown the sandbags that were around many of the homes. They were also given information about access to education, clean water and health services. Members then attended a briefing by a representative of the Border Guards on what they had witnessed, as the members of the Rohingya community started coming across from Myanmar. They also were briefed by the Deputy Commissioner of Cox’s Bazar on the humanitarian assistance being given to the refugees.

Council members had the opportunity to interact with the refugees who shared their stories about what led to them to be in the camp. There were many who talked about having lost family members, of houses being burnt and people being shot at. A group of all women refugees spoke to Council members of their experiences that included sexual exploitation and violent attacks by soldiers on their children and husbands following the 25 August 2017 attack.

At the end of the visit, Council members held a press conference, which was very well attended by the Bangladeshi press. As Council president, Ambassador Gustavo Meza-Cuadra Velásquez (Peru) opened the press conference by explaining that the Council had come on this visiting mission to learn more about the situation and expressed support and appreciation to the Bangladesh government. The other two co-leads of the mission, Kuwait and the UK, also spoke. Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi (Kuwait) said that this was a humanitarian catastrophe and a human rights issue. Ambassador Karen Pierce (UK) said that the immediate need was international support to deal with the potentially catastrophic impact of an impending monsoon and that international support was also needed for Bangladesh’s economic stability. She also noted that the Rohingya had come from Myanmar and that the solution had to come from Myanmar as the Rohingya needed to eventually go home.

Council members were asked a variety of questions by the media including how the visit would affect possible action in the Council on their return. Of particular interest was whether there might be punitive action taken against Myanmar and if accountability would be addressed. Russia and China were specifically asked if they would support a binding resolution now. Deputy Permanent Representative Dmitry Polyansky (Russia) said that this was a complicated issue with no easy solution but that he did not think that it was the right time for a Council resolution. Deputy Permanent Representative Wu Haitao (China) echoed Russia’s view about the complexity of the issue and said that the Council would need to work together to address it. The idea of being willing to work hard on a solution and that there was no fast or easy answer was expressed by a number of members, including Kazakhstan, Kuwait and the UK. The November 2017 presidential statement was mentioned as a good basis for working together on this issue.

After a very intense day during which members were exposed to the reality of the situation for Rohingya in the camp, it seemed that many felt that driving through the camp and talking to the refugees gave them a much better sense of the magnitude of the problem. While solutions were not going to be easy, this deeper understanding might shape the direction of Council’s future action. For some members, there were still questions to be answered on issues, which might become clearer on the next leg of the visiting mission, in Myanmar.

Tomorrow morning, the Council delegation will meet with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, before heading to Naypitaw, Myanmar’s capital.