Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Friday to press Myanmar to take back hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh.
The plea came as the pair kicked off a series of bilateral engagements in West Bengal, India, with the Indian prime minister reportedly praising current ties between the neighboring countries as being in a “golden chapter.”
“Put pressure on Myanmar so the government takes them back,” Hasina told Modi during the dedication ceremony for a Bangladeshi cultural center at Visva Bharati University and at a private meeting later in the day.
She was referring to nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh from a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017. Last November, officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a bilateral agreement for the voluntary repatriation of those refugees, but the two countries have yet to start the physical process of sending Rohingya back to their home state of Rakhine.
Hasina’s plea to Modi came the same day that a Bangladesh official announced that a plan to move about 100,000 Rohingya from refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district to Bhashan Char, a low-lying flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, would be delayed by two to three months.
Since the unprecedented influx began nine months ago, Bangladesh has been widely praised for taking in the huge number of Rohingya refugees, which has brought the total refugee population in southeastern Bangladesh to around 1 million.
But a report this week by an NGO, Refugees International (RI), took both the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations to task for not being better prepared to protect the sheltering population from potential natural disasters that could be unleashed by upcoming monsoonal rains, which run from June to September.
“The humanitarian response, including preparation for the monsoon season, has been significant and substantial – but it has also been hamstrung by a number of obstacles and lack of effective management and coordination by the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations system,” RI said in the report released Wednesday.
“Failure to overcome these challenges is unnecessarily putting lives at risk.”
The report called for removing bureaucratic barriers hindering humanitarian activities by NGOs, streamlining the government’s humanitarian response structure through the appointment of a single senior official to oversee efforts; providing safe and suitable land for Rohingya while establishing smaller, less crowed camps; and not moving refugees to Bhashan Char.
RI’s recommendations for the U.N. included urging the government to remove barriers for NGOs and to stop refugees from being moved to Bhashan Char. Refugees International also urged the U.N. to pursue repatriation as the ultimate goal.
‘The world should learn from us’
On Friday, a Bangladeshi official overseeing Rohingya shot back at NGO’s findings.
“We totally disagree with the observation of Refugee International. Their allegations are simply sweeping comments without knowing what herculean tasks we are doing here at the grassroots,” Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of the Rohingya section at the ministry of disaster management, told BenarNews.
“All of Europe could not handle 100,000 refugees in one year, but we handled 1 million people in three months,” he said.
He praised efforts to care for the refugees.
“Many forecast that thousands of people would die of disease, hunger and malnutrition. But it has not happened. No one died of hunger and disease,” Chowdhury said. “The world should learn from us how to handle humanitarian crisis. We live with monsoon rains, floods and other disasters – we know how to face a crisis.”
In its own report updated on Friday, the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said the priority in Bangladesh was “to prevent an emergency within an emergency.”
“The single greatest challenge to refugee protection is the physical environment of the settlements themselves, notably the congestion, access challenges due to a lack of roads and pathways, the high rates of water contamination and the significant risk of epidemics,” UNHCR said.
The agency said the monsoon season could further deteriorate an already dire situation.
Meanwhile, a top official in Bangladesh’s Ministry of Disaster Management said the relocation, which was scheduled to begin in June, could occur in August or September because preparations to build infrastructure to accommodate the refugees on the island were still under way.
“According to a report, about 80 percent of Bhashan Char has been completed,” Additional Secretary Md. Mohsin, said, adding that the Bangladesh Navy was responsible for the project.
“An 11-member committee, consisting of six from the Bangladesh government and five from UNHCR and other aid agencies has been formed to look into this matter,” he said.
The committee would visit the island next week to check on progress and to determine when the refugees could be moved, he added.
A Rohingya leader who lives in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, said refugees would move to the island if told to do so.
“We do not know how that place is set up and we do not know what’s there,” Mahmud Badar told BenarNews. “We are here under the supervision of the United Nations. We will do whatever the U.N. says.”