Bangladesh should slow its plans to relocate Rohingya refugees from the mainland to Bhashan Char, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said Friday, a day after flying by helicopter to visit the Bay of Bengal island.
Getting an aerial view allowed her to see government efforts to construct housing and other necessary developments on the island, Rapporteur Yanghee Lee said. But she urged Bangladeshi officials to conduct thorough assessments and hold talks to determine whether refugees would be safe if moved to the offshore site.
Last year, Bangladesh announced plans to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya, beginning in October, from overcrowded refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
“Unless full technical, humanitarian, security assessments are done and protection discussions are made, I think we really need to slow the relocation process,” she told BenarNews, after holding a news conference in Dhaka. She was wrapping up a six-day visit to the country, during which she visited Cox’s Bazar and met with Bangladeshi government officials.
“I know that there has been some technical assessment, but I am not a technical expert,” she said. “All of these parameters have to be discussed and thought through before any relocation plan is decided.”
Lee also told reporters in Dhaka that the government should prepare for the reality that Rohingya sheltering in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps likely would not be returning to Myanmar in the near future.
About 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar following a military crackdown, which was launched in Rakhine state in retaliation for deadly raids on government security outposts by Rohingya insurgents in August 2017.
“Now that the election in Bangladesh has concluded, I encourage the government to begin to engage in longer-term planning and prepare the local population for this reality,” Lee told the news conference.
“A failure to do so will not only have negative consequences for the refugee population but also for Bangladesh, including most significantly, the host community, who have already given so much to accommodate the refugees.”
Lee praised Bangladesh for welcoming the Rohingya and allowing them to stay.
“I am encouraged that Bangladesh will not send people back against their will,” she told Benar, adding the situation in Rakhine state has exacerbated the difficulties involved in repatriation which had been scheduled to begin a year ago.
But she also reminded the government that it must help meet the Rohingya’s needs as well.
“I do not underestimate the burden that housing so many refugees is for Bangladesh. However, this burden will not be lessened by excluding Rohingya children from formal education,” Lee said. “Equally, access to livelihood opportunities must also be ensured.”
In a statement regarding Bhashan Char that was issued online, Lee said Bangladesh’s government had not held discussions with the humanitarian community about how Rohingya would be protected on the island.
Despite that, Lee said government officials told her that any Rohingya who chose to live on Bhashan Char would “essentially have access to the same basic rights as those who live in Cox’s Bazar.”
Children on the island would have access to primary education, families would have access to health care and opportunities to make a living including fishing and farming would be available, she said, according to her statement posted Friday on the website of the U.N. human rights office (OHCHR). Rohingya would be allowed to travel to visit family and friends in Cox’s Bazar camps but would not be allowed to travel to other parts of Bangladesh, she said.
“I am anxious about whether these conditions are adequate to fulfil the needs and rights of Rohingya refugees, particularly in the medium- and longer-term. The island’s isolation does particularly trouble me, especially in the event of cyclones or other natural disasters,” Lee said in the statement.
A Bangladesh disaster management official, who requested anonymity, said his organization had been in touch with U.N. officials regarding relocation plans and had provided a report on conditions at Bhashan Char.
“We want to relocate the Rohingya while maintaining international standards. We hope the U.N. agencies will not oppose our relocation move,” the Bangladeshi official told BenarNews.
More pressure needed from ASEAN
Lee also called on the international community, specifically the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to take responsibility for the refugees. Myanmar is an ASEAN member, but Bangladesh is not.
“I think we have to continue to put pressure on Myanmar. The international community has to put more pressure on Myanmar,” she told BenarNews.
ASEAN has to put more pressure. They have to really step up. … Because as I said, it’s not just a domestic situation,” she said.
“I anticipated this and spoke to the ASEAN ambassadors I would meet in Bangkok or in Myanmar. It’s going to go beyond the borders of Rakhine. … It’s already become a regional issue with the potential of becoming a global issue.”
While visiting Bangkok earlier this month, Lee said that Myanmar Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing should be prosecuted for genocide against Rohingya, a reported published on Friday by the Reuters news service quoted her as saying.
Myanmar has banned Lee, the U.N. rapporteur, from entering its territory.
“Min Aung Hlaing and others should be held accountable for genocide in Rakhine and for crimes against humanity and war crimes in other parts of Myanmar,” Lee said, according to Reuters.
A 2018 U.N. fact-finding mission to Myanmar reported the military campaign that began in August 2017 was orchestrated with genocidal intent, and recommended charging six generals with the “gravest crimes under international law.”