Bangladesh wants UNHCR to pay $7M for transfers of imported vehicles

Reyad Hossain
Bangladesh wants UNHCR to pay $7M for transfers of imported vehicles A UNHCR truck delivers humanitarian supplies to the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh Nov. 8, 2017.
Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters file photo

In a move that could disrupt humanitarian aid to Rohingya, Bangladesh has frozen UNHCR’s import license and accused it of irregularities after the U.N. refugee agency brought in dozens of vehicles duty-free, according to a letter reviewed by BenarNews.

In the letter dated June 21, the government’s customs department stated it would not release imported goods destined for UNHCR until the U.N. agency paid U.S. $7 million for alleged irregularities in the vehicles’ transfers. The letter was signed by Md. Abdul Hannan, deputy commissioner of the National Board of Revenue, which oversees the customs office.

The board has locked the humanitarian aid organization’s business identification number (BIN), which is required for all exports and imports.

“The 46 vehicles were imported duty-free for official use, but transfers of those vehicles violate NBR rules,” the letter reads, adding UNHCR was notified in a letter demanding that it pay the $7 million, which includes fines and interest.

“But it didn’t pay any amount,” the letter states.

The vehicles, which were imported into Bangladesh in 2018, include a Toyota Land Cruiser, Land Cruise ambulance and trucks. NBR alleged that the vehicles were used by the Bangladesh government’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief as well as the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner without permission.

It was unclear whether the vehicles that UNHCR shipped into the country duty-free were later sold second-hand or given away or donated.

On Monday, Md. Bodruzzaman Munshi, deputy commissioner of NBR’s Customs House in Chittagong, confirmed the freeze.

“UNHCR has violated the rules in the case of 46 vehicles – that is why they have been asked to pay customs duty and other taxes,” he told BenarNews. 

The UNHCR office in Bangladesh did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

On Monday, a local UNHCR official asked a BenarNews reporter to send questions that were to be relayed to more senior U.N. representatives, but the official did not pick up subsequent follow-up calls after the questions were emailed to him. 

Last week, the U.N. agency did issue a statement to Bangladesh media.

“UNHCR has not violated any government regulation on import and export. However, UNHCR is currently in discussion with the Government of Bangladesh to solve this issue,” Bangladesh spokesman Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain told The Financial Express.

Concerns for Rohingya

Meanwhile, the executive director of the Policy Research Institute called the NBR action reckless.

“If the organization’s imports are disrupted because of this decision, how will UNHCR work for the Rohingya? Since UNHCR is working in the greater national and international interest, it should be resolved in an amicable way, taking consideration of small mistakes,” Ahsan H. Mansur told BenarNews.

“They [UNHCR] did not sell any vehicle. Maybe another organization is using them,” he said, adding UNHCR should not be forced to pay for a small mistake.

“They are bringing relief and feeding people and now you want them to pay taxes,” he said. “Now if they fail to import, then the government will have to feed the Rohingya.”

About 1 million Rohingya who have fled Myanmar live in refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern district near the Burmese border. These include about 740,000 who fled a military offensive in their home state of Rakhine in August 2017.

UNHCR is one of the international organizations assisting the refugees.

A July 2000 NBR order states “a diplomatic mission or diplomat or privileged organization or person may sell or transfer such goods without payment of duties and taxes only to another such diplomatic missions or person’s with prior permission from the NBR.” 

“They neither complied with the NBR rules nor informed the customs authority,” Munshi told BenarNews.

M. Masrur Reaz, an economist with the World Bank’s office in Bangladesh, called on both sides to reach an agreement.

“UNHCR should have followed the rules of the NBR. Customs will take action if there is any irregularity,” Reaz told BenarNews, adding such action is normal.

He questioned the BIN lock, calling it a harsh decision.

“There is no point in imposing tax on the vehicles if there is no personal use except for refugees or humanitarian work,” he said.


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