Seeking light in a tunnel

Courier Briefing
Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

Photo: Salahuddin Ahmed


It is instructive to consider the plight of the Rohingya, if at all it is possible, from their point of view. It most likely isn’t exactly, but you begin to understand the scale of their tragic situation by some of the stories you hear from those who escaped, as we did when a team from Dhaka Courier visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf (see next story).


Meanwhile, the scale of the suffering inside Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the home they have left behind and the one place they can go to, is “unimaginable”, the United Nations said Monday (October 2), after three of its members joined a belated government-steered visit for aid agencies and diplomats to the conflict-battered region.


Myanmar has tightly controlled access to the state since last month when attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army prompted an army kickback that sent more than 500,000 fleeing to Bangladesh. Scores of Rohingya villages have been torched. A Myanmar official tally says hundreds of people died as violence consumed remote communities, including Rohingya (although the government in Nay Pyi Taw of course, doesn’t recognise them as such). Hindus and ethnic Rakhine were also among the dead, with around 30,000 displaced to other parts of Rakhine State at the start of the conflict.


Rights groups say the real death toll is likely to be much higher, especially among the Rohingya, while the UN has labelled army operations as “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim group.


Many inside Myanmar have accused the UN of having a pro-Rohingya bias, as hostility towards INGOs sky rockets, further limiting access. This is nothing new, as it came up during the UNSC meeting on Myanmar that took place during the recently-concluded 72nd UNGA as well. The organisation’s secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, was compelled to ask the Myanmar government representatives to work to improve the image of the UN inside Myanmar. It also explains why no role for the UNHCR or any other UN body, has been envisioned in talks on the crisis between representatives of Bangladesh and Myanmar this week (see below).


The October 2 visit marked a thaw in the relationship, with the UN welcoming the trip as a “positive step” while reiterating “the need for greater humanitarian access”


“The scale of the human suffering is unimaginable and the UN sends its deepest condolences to all those affected,” it said, calling for an end to the “cycle of violence”


It also urged a “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of refugees to their area of origin”.


Diplomats and other INGOs accompanied them on the trip, which was delayed from last week. But the limitations of the one-day visit under tight government control surely limited its scope. The EU delegation to Myanmar also joined the whistle-stop trip, which took in Maungdaw and Rathedaung, explaining in a statement “this was not an investigation mission and could not be in the circumstances”.


“We saw villages that had been burned to the ground and emptied of inhabitants. The violence must stop,” it said, calling for unimpeded humanitarian and media access.


International aid groups fear tens of thousands of Rohingya who remain in northern parts of Rakhine are in urgent need of food, medicine and shelter after over a month of military operations. In a sign of ongoing tensions and mistrust, a few thousand Rohingya have massed on a beach awaiting boats to Bangladesh after receiving death threats.


Even as Bangladesh hailed what it termed a ‘proposal’ from Myanmar to repatriate the more than half-a-million that have been decamped to Bangladesh since October of 2016, we may just have to pause to consider: are the conditions in Rakhine yet conducive to their return?


A break in the clouds?


Bangladesh and Myanmar on October 2 agreed to form a joint working group to start the repatriation process of all the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh, which Dhaka saw as “progress,” reported our sister newsagency UNB this week.


“It’ll soon be formed and I’m hopeful (about a solution),” Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali told reporters in the afternoon mentioning that Myanmar came up with the proposal of repatriation of the Rohingyas. He, however, said the composition of the joint working group will be finalised later. “We’ll give our names from our side while they’ll give their names (for the joint working group).”


Bangladesh has also proposed a bilateral agreement with Myanmar to facilitate the implementation of repatriation process.


“A draft of the proposed deal has also been handed over to Myanmar side in the meeting,” Minister Ali said without elaborating details of the proposed deal. The foreign minister said Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan will soon visit Myanmar which will help take forward the negotiations with Myanmar.


“There has been fruitful discussion over border and security issues for forgoing more cooperation,” he said adding that some instruments on better border management are ready to give final shape during the visit. The foreign minister said Bangladesh also reiterated its zero tolerance position against terrorism. “Both sides are looking forward to see a peaceful solution to the Rohingya crisis,” he said. Asked about timeframe of joint working group formation, he said, “We need to wait but let’s start the discussion.”


He said Bangladesh also flagged the Annan Commission’s recommendation and laid emphasis on implementation of those recommendations. The foreign minister indicated that the joint working group will also do citizenship verification process apart from other related works. At the meeting, Bangladesh has reiterated its position over the Rohingya issue, and urged Myanmar to take steps for the sustainable return of all the Rohingyas to their homeland Myanmar who are currently living here, a diplomatic source told UNB.


Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali was speaking after he had a lengthy meeting with visiting Minister of the Office of State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe at state guesthouse Padma where they discussed the issues in details. Although admittedly nothing concrete emerged from the meeting. Dhaka has presented a proposal, the details of which remain sketchy at best. Meanwhile Myanmar continues to put store by the 1992 agreement and its conditions.


The Global New Light of Myanmar, a state newspaper, reported that the Myanmarese Union Minister reiterated the commitment made by Myanmar’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on September 19, 2017, that Myanmar is ready to begin the verification and repatriation of refugees. It was recalled that in accordance with the agreed criteria set out in the Joint Statement between Foreign Ministers of Myanmar and Bangladesh on  April 28 1992, a total of 236,495 people of 46,993 households had been repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar from September 1992 until July 2005.


The Union Minister also referred to the agreement made at the Senior Officials Meeting between Myanmar and Bangladesh held in Yangon on 14 January 2000, MNA reported, in which both sides agreed that, in the case of the repatriation of split families and their left behind family members, this process could be carried out on the presentation of legal documents certified by the Government of Bangladesh. The Union Minister expressed his firm conviction that issues arising between two neighbours can be resolved bilaterally, in an amicable manner, taking into consideration the national interests of both countries.


Frontier Myanmar, a newsweekly, carried a report by AFP on the meeting by putting the use of the word proposal in apostrophes. Myanmarese media in general played down any talk of a ‘proposal’, in the almost cheery way in which Mahmood Ali presented it to the press gaggle. Although the genial foreign service pro, now minister, who was part of the protracted post-1992 repatriation effort, and knows Myanmar needs to be handled very, very carefully, might just know what he is doing. Or so we hope. It is about all the Rohingya have at the moment.


5 weeks, 507,000 refugees


Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali said Bangladesh itself is currently facing a severe crisis due to the influx of forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals which made the problem a multidimensional one. He said international peace and security are facing many new challenges. “In addition to poverty and conflicts, other emerging global issues such as climate change and natural disasters, outbreaks of new diseases, discrimination and persecutions, displacements — all these are posing new threats to the humanity.”


Some 507,000 arrivals of Myanmar’s fleeing Rohingya population are reported as of September 30, including 453,300 new arrivals identified in IOM’s Needs and Population Monitoring assessments in four upazilas of Cox’s Bazar district, said a new report on October 1.


The latest figure includes 35,000 in refugee camps reported by UNHCR and 18,700 reported by field staff in Naikhongchhari (Bandarban district). Over September 26-27, movement across the border in Cox’s Bazar reportedly decreased again, according to the report “Situation Report: Rohingya Crisis”.


The Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), convened by the IOM, in collaboration with humanitarian partners prepared the report that covered September 21 – 27. Their next report will be issued on October 8, said the IOM on Sunday. Some 37% of refugees arrived by walking and 34% by boat.


People who have arrived since August 25 continue to move to the new Kutupalong Expansion site, where they are constructing new shelters. The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Coordinator is leading on the Kutupalong Expansion project along with the Site Management Taskforce, which includes UNHCR, IOM and other key implementing agencies.


Some 20 “blocks” have been identified by RRRC. Agencies continue to focus on delivering aid wherever people have settled. Road access continues to be a constraint for humanitarian assistance delivery, with road repairs underway. As of now 630m of road construction has been completed in Balukhali.


The speed and scale of the influx has resulted in a critical humanitarian emergency. The people who have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25 came with very few possessions.


They have used the majority of their savings on transportation and constructing a shelter, often out of no more than bamboo and thin plastic. They are now reliant on humanitarian assistance for food, and other life-saving needs. Basic services that were available prior to the influx are under severe strain due to the massive increase in people in the area.


In some of the sites that have spontaneously emerged, there is no access to water and sanitation facilities, raising the risks of an outbreak of disease.


The Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar is highly vulnerable, having fled conflict and experienced severe trauma, and now living in extremely difficult conditions. Population movements within Cox’s Bazar remain highly fluid, with increasing concentration in Ukhiya, where the government of Bangladesh has allocated 2,000 acres for a new camp.

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