Anxious Americans go to the polls with faces masked, stores boarded up

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Voters wait in line at the Oakmont United Methodist Church on November 3, 2020 in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, a suburban community outside Pittsburgh. (AFP)
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A voter with "I Voted" sticker is seen during the US presidential election in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 3, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 03 November 2020

Anxious Americans go to the polls with faces masked, stores boarded up

MCCONNELLSBURG, Pennsylvania: Millions of Americans will cast ballots on Tuesday in an Election Day unlike any other, braving the threat of COVID-19 and the potential for violence and intimidation after one of the most polarizing presidential races in US history.
In and around polling places across the country, reminders of a 2020 election year shaped by pandemic, civil unrest and bruising political partisanship will greet voters, although more than 90 million ballots have been already submitted in an unprecedented wave of early voting.
Many will wear masks to the polls — either by choice or by official mandate — with the coronavirus outbreak raging in many parts of the country.
Some voters in major US cities will see businesses boarded up as a precaution against politically motivated vandalism, an extraordinary sight on Election Day in the United States, where voting is typically peaceful in the modern era.
The tensions surrounding this year’s presidential election were in the air on Monday in the gun section of the Buchanan Trail Sporters store in the small town of McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania.
“No matter who gets in they have a feeling there will be some civil unrest,” Sally Hoover, the shop’s co-owner, said as half a dozen shoppers browsed the cases filled with weapons and bullets.
Hoover is supporting President Donald Trump, a Republican, as he fights for a second term against the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, a former vice president who is ahead in the polls.
“These people around here aren’t going to go looking for the fight,” Hoover said. “But if the fight comes to them, they are going to defend their property and way of life.”

TENSIONS FROM TIMES SQUARE TO TEXAS
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups said they were watching closely for signs of voter intimidation.
The ACLU’s Georgia affiliate deployed around 300 lawyers across the state at about 50 potential “hot spots” for voting trouble on Tuesday, including 15 polling places in Atlanta.
“We have poll observers who are looking out for any voter intimidation,” Andrea Young, ACLU Georgia’s executive director, told reporters. “We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we want to be as ready as possible.”
The US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is deploying staff to 18 states to monitor for voter intimidation and suppression, including in some battleground counties and in cities shaken by civil unrest this year.
Police and business owners said they were taking precautions to protect property, with memories still fresh of sometimes violent protests over racial injustice in many cities over the summer.
In New York City, the Macy’s department store and the skyscraper that houses the Trump-favored Fox News channel were among the buildings that were boarded up. On Rodeo Drive, one of the most expensive shopping streets in California’s Beverley Hills, staff stripped the display windows at Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels of their jewels.
“Hopefully this is all for nothing,” Kathy Gohari, vice president of the Rodeo Drive Committee, the merchants association, said on Monday as she watched workers nail plywood over luxury storefronts.
Still, fists, eggs and expletives have already flown in New York City’s Times Square in recent days among ardent Trump fans, Democrats and adherents of the anti-fascism movement known as antifa.
An alleged plot by an anti-government militia group to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, uncovered last month, has highlighted the potential for political violence on Election Day. Police in Graham, North Carolina, doused a group of anti-racism activists with pepper spray as they were marching to a polling station on Saturday.
On a Texas highway on Friday, in a spectacle reminiscent of the movie “Mad Max,” a convoy of pickup trucks mounted with billowing Trump flags surrounded a Biden-emblazoned bus filled with campaign staffers in what seemed an attempt to force the bus off the road.
Trump praised the pickup drivers as “patriots,” and expressed impatience with his Federal Bureau of Investigation when the agency said it was looking into the matter.
In the New York City area and elsewhere, convoys of vehicles with Trump flags stopped on highways and bridges, according to local media, snarling traffic in a defiant show of support for the president.
Even once votes are cast, Americans from the president down have expressed anxiety over what could be a protracted ballot count.
As the United States has suffered through the deadliest coronavirus outbreak on the planet, many states have expanded early voting to reduce contagion-spreading crowds at polling stations.
A record-setting 97.7 million early votes had been cast either in-person or by mail as of Monday afternoon, representing about 40% of all Americans who are legally eligible to vote.


Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

Updated 10 min 31 sec ago

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

  • Witness testimonies confirm that racism underlies Houthis’ abuse of Africans trapped in Yemen
  • Lawyer says 10 women taken to hospital after the March 7 fire are now nowhere to be found

NEW YORK CITY: When Abdel Karim Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, fled the recent violence consuming Ethiopia’s Oromia region, he never imagined he would fall into the hands of Yemen’s Houthis.

In fact, like many of his compatriots desperate to escape conflict-ridden Ethiopia, he had not even heard of the Iran-backed militia, which seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2015.

When he first set out on his dangerous voyage across the Red Sea, Abdel Karim had envisioned an arduous overland crossing to one of the Arab Gulf states where opportunity and prosperity awaited him.

Events had taken a frightening turn in his native Ethiopia, where the security situation has continued to deteriorate amid growing unrest and political tensions. Human rights abuses, attacks by armed groups and communal and ethnic violence have forced thousands to seek refuge abroad.

Abdel Karim’s first encounter with the Houthis came just two days after his arrival in Sanaa, when two militiamen approached him in a marketplace. They singled him out in the crowd and demanded to see his ID.

Without so much as glancing at his papers, he was placed under arrest and taken to the city’s Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority (IPNA) Holding Facility, where he found hundreds of African migrants languishing.

Among them was Issa Abdul Rahman Hassan, 20, who had been working a shift at a Sanaa restaurant to save for his journey when Houthi militiamen stormed in and carried him off to the detention center.

 

There he was placed inside a hangar with dozens of others. In a video recorded three months after his arrival, Issa gestures around him. “Look, we are living on top of each other. We have no food. No water. Some people are exhausted, as you can see. They just sleep night and day.

“We don’t even have medicine here. And organizations like UNHCR do not care about us. All of us here are Oromo,” he said, referring to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Human Rights Watch has corroborated several accounts like Issa’s, describing conditions in the detention center as “cramped and unsanitary, with up to 550 migrants in a hangar in the facility compound.”

On March 7, unable to tolerate these conditions any longer, the migrants went on hunger strike.

Conditions in the hangar before the fire were bad enough. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

According to witness testimonies, the camp’s Houthi guards told the migrants to say their “final prayers” before firing tear gas and what may have been a flash grenade into the hangar. A fire quickly broke out.

Amid the smoke and chaos, migrants trampled one another in their desperation to escape. According to Houthi accounts, 40 migrants succumbed to the smoke and flames. Human rights groups put the figure closer to 450 — not to mention the scores of burn victims and amputees.

Abdel Karim was in the bathroom when the fire broke out. He survived, but suffered severe burns to his arms. He was taken to a government hospital, where he could see from the window a heavy security presence deployed around the medical facility, blocking relatives and aid agencies from reaching the injured.

Afraid he would be rearrested, Abdel Karim discharged himself and escaped.

A fire victim is treated at a hospital in Aden. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

Despite his injuries, he joined survivors and relatives of the dead outside the UNHCR building in Sanaa to demand international action to hold the perpetrators to account.

They also demanded the names of all those killed, dignified funerals and closure for the families of those still missing.

“UNHCR did not respond to us,” Abdel Karim said in a video, shared with Arab News by the Oromia Human Rights Organization (OHRO).

“Only two days after the protests began, a UNHCR guy came out and told us that they (the agency’s staff) are also refugees like us here, guests who are incapable of doing anything. He told us that since 2016, the refugee file has been in the hands of the Houthis.”

INNUMBERS

550 Migrants in the IPNA hangar before March 7 fire.

6,000 Migrants in detention in mainly Houthi-controlled Yemen.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Undeterred, the crowd refused to leave, camping outside the UNHCR building for several weeks. Then, in the early hours of April 2, Houthi militiamen cordoned off the area, and dispersed the protesters with tear gas and live rounds.

“They hit us, dragged us by force, took our fingerprints and photographed us, before loading some of us into cars and shuttling us to the city of Dhamar, where they abandoned us in the rugged mountainous areas,” said Abdel Karim.

“We knew nothing and no one there. We just kept walking. We had no food, no water and hardly any money. When we stopped at one of the small villages, one of us got a bottle of water, and we passed it on to one another. There was only enough water to wet the tips of our tongues.”

The group eventually made it to Aden two days later. From the UNHCR’s headquarters in the port city, Abdel Karim asked to be taken to hospital to have his burns treated.

According to Arafat Jibril, head of OHRO, only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown.

“African migrants just keep disappearing,” Jibril told Arab News. “The numbers of the forcibly disappeared are on the rise. But we have no means of knowing the exact numbers. This would be the job of international organizations, provided they are given access to secret detention centers, many of which are in Sanaa.”

Only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

As a lawyer and activist, Jibril collects eyewitness testimonies from inside Houthi-occupied territories in the form of secret WhatsApp recordings made by determined volunteers compelled to expose the horrors they see committed against African migrants.

Piecing together what happened to the disappeared is proving a challenge. “We know, for example, that 10 women who were taken to hospital are now nowhere to be found,” she said.

“We know that detentions of African migrants are continuing on a large scale, and that there is a long ‘wanted’ list, including the names of protest ringleaders and those migrants who talked to the press.

“And we know that the Houthis sort the migrants out. They send the young and healthy to war, and position them at the forefront of the trenches so ‘the blacks’ — as the Houthis call the African migrants — would die first. We have heard many accounts like that from those who survived the battles and returned to their families.

“They send African women to the battlefield, too, referring to them as Zaynabiyat (the Houthis’ all-female militia), to do the cooking and other services. At least 180 women and 30 children who had been detained were kidnapped two days before the fire. We also know nothing about them.”

African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen on April 23, 2019. (AFP)

Few doubt that racism lies at the core of this maltreatment.

“Shortly after the tragic fire, Houthis were bullying the African migrants, hurling racial slurs at them, calling them ‘the grandchildren of Bilal’ — the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam — and threatening ‘to burn you one by one like we burned your friends’,” Jibril said.

She fears these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in a largely overlooked tragedy that, despite its increasing severity, has failed to capture the interest of the international community.

The Houthis are well aware that African migrants have no one looking out for their interests.

“No organization to protect them,” said Jibril. “No one. So, the Houthis say, ‘let’s use them’. The only ‘sin’ these migrants committed was that they were born black.”

_____________________

Twitter: @EphremKossaify


COVID-19 death toll passes 3 million as India cases surge

Updated 17 April 2021

COVID-19 death toll passes 3 million as India cases surge

  • India’s capital New Delhi went into a weekend lockdown Saturday as the world’s second-most populous nation recorded 234,000 new cases and 1,341 deaths

PARIS: The global COVID-19 death toll passed 3 million on Saturday as the pandemic continues to speed up despite vaccination campaigns, leading countries like India to impose new lockdowns to fight spiraling infection numbers.

It is the latest grim milestone after the novel coronavirus surfaced in central China in December 2019 and went on to infect more than 139 million people, leaving billions more under crippling lockdowns and ravaging the global economy.

An average of more than 12,000 deaths were recorded globally every day in the past week, shooting the overall toll past 3 million at around 0830 GMT on Saturday, according to an AFP tally.

For comparison, 3 million people is more than the population of Jamaica or Armenia, and three times the death toll of the Iran-Iraq war which raged from 1980-1988.

And the pandemic is showing no sign of slowing down: The 829,596 new infections reported worldwide on Friday is the highest number yet, according to AFP’s tally.

The daily average of 731,000 cases registered over the last week is also close to being a record.

India’s capital New Delhi went into a weekend lockdown Saturday as the world’s second-most populous nation recorded 234,000 new cases and 1,341 deaths.

India now has three times the daily cases of the US, the world’s worst-hit nation, and families are clamoring for drugs and hospital beds.

Hopes that South Asian countries might have seen the worst of the pandemic have been dashed, with India recording over 2 million new cases this month alone and Bangladesh and Pakistan imposing new shutdowns.

Udaya Regmi of the international Red Cross said the “truly frightening” South Asian surge was a “wake-up call to the world.”

“Vaccines must be available to everyone, everywhere, rich and poor to overcome this terrible pandemic,” Regmi added.

Richer countries that have waged mass inoculation efforts have seen their virus numbers plummet. Britain, which has given 60 percent of the population at least one vaccination dose, now records around 30 deaths a day — down from 1,200 in late January.

The virus continues to impact events elsewhere in the world.

In Brazil, the country with the third-highest death toll in the world, night shifts have been added to several cemeteries as diggers work around the clock to bury the dead.

One of these is Vila Formosa, the largest cemetery in Latin America and a showcase for the lethal cost of the pandemic in Brazil, where more than 365,000 people have died from COVID-19.

“We try not to get upset in our work, but it is sad, it is a lot of people,” one of the gravediggers there said after a long shift.

Despite the high infection rate, the government of Brazil’s most populous state Sao Paulo announced it will allow businesses and places of worship to reopen from Sunday.

But there was better news in Europe, where some countries are easing their lockdowns in response to not only fatigue, but falling infection numbers and progress with vaccinations.

Italy announced Friday it will ease coronavirus restrictions for schools and restaurants from April 26.

Expressing “cautious optimism,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi said his government was taking a “calculated risk.”

Italy will also allow up to a thousand spectators at outdoor events from May 1, when it eases its stadium fan ban in regions less affected by the coronavirus.

In more good news for Britons after the partial reopening of society this week, Germany on Friday removed the UK from the list of risk zones for coronavirus infections, meaning that travelers will no longer need to quarantine upon arrival.

Spain meanwhile extended the mandatory quarantine of passengers arriving from 12 countries in South America and Africa, including Brazil and South Africa, over concerns about more transmissible variants.


Egyptian among militants killed in Philippines firefight

Updated 17 April 2021

Egyptian among militants killed in Philippines firefight

  • “One less suicide bomber,” says Philippines army chief after troops kill 3 fighters
  • The bodies of the dead militants, along with their assault rifles, a grenade launcher and bandoliers of ammunition, were recovered

MANILA: An Egyptian national was among three militants killed in a clash with government forces late on Friday in the southern Philippines province of Sulu, officials said.
Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, Jr. said the firefight took place around 10:45 p.m. in the Igasan village of Patikul town.
Troops carrying out operations in the area clashed with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) — a terror unit led by Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan and with links to Daesh — in an exchange that lasted about 10 minutes.
The bodies of the dead militants, along with their assault rifles, a grenade launcher and bandoliers of ammunition, were recovered.
Officials told Arab News that information provided by villagers helped troops trace the militants.
Wesmincom spokesperson Lt. Col. Alaric Delos Santos said the Egyptian, identified as Yusof, was the son of two foreign militants who died in separate suicide attacks in Basilan and Sulu provinces in 2018 and 2019.
Yusof was one of the five remaining foreign terrorists being monitored in the southern Philippines.
His father, a Moroccan identified as Abu Khatir Al-Maghribi, staged the first reported suicide bombing in the Philippines, which took place at a military roadblock in Lamitan, Basilan, in July, 2018.
Eleven people were killed in the incident, including Al-Maghribi, who drove the bomb-laden van used in the attack.
Yusof’s mother, Reda Mohammed Mahmud, was identified as the Egyptian national involved in a foiled suicide bombing at an army base in Indanan town in Sulu province in September, 2019.
Mahmud, who died when she detonated the bomb, was the lone fatality.
According to Delos Santos, Yusof’s family arrived in Mindanao in 2018 and subsequently joined the late Hatib Hadjan Sawadjaan, the ASG leader designated as Daesh emir in the Philippines.
“He was still young when his parents brought him to Sulu about four years ago,” Delos Santos told Arab News.
The family also had been seen in videos of encounters between the ASG and government forces obtained by the military.
Following her husband’s death, Yusof’s mother married another Egyptian suicide bomber identified only as Abduramil, who was killed in a clash at an army checkpoint in November, 2019.
The military said then that the killing of Abduramil and his two companions helped thwart an “imminent suicide attack.”
Lt. Jerrica Manongdo, a spokesperson for the Joint Task Force Sulu, told Arab News that Yusof had been “tagging along” with Mundi Sawadjaan, a notorious ASG leader and bomb-maker, and was reportedly “volunteering to be a suicide bomber.”
Sawadjaan helped plan the bloody 2019 Sulu Cathedral attack, which left dozens dead, and other suicide bombings in the island province.
“This is one less suicide bomber,” Joint Task Force Sulu and 11th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. William Gonzales said of Yusof’s death.
“I commend our ground forces for this monumental accomplishment. These neutralized terrorists are the cohorts of Mundi in executing atrocities. Without them, the possibility of another attack is slimmer,” he said in a statement.
“Moreover, financial support sent to ASG in Sulu from their foreign terrorist affiliates are cut off. We are optimistic that Mundi will soon meet his end.”
Gonzales said that air, naval and ground forces are being used in all-out offensive against the remaining foreign terrorists and ASG members in the province.
“We are coordinating with local leaders to ensure the safety of the people,” he added.
Besides Yusof, Abu Khattab Jundullah, known as “Saddam,” a trained bomb-maker, and another ASG member yet to be identified were also killed in Friday’s military operation.
Since January, the Joint Task Force Sulu has accounted for 70 ASG members, seven of whom were captured, while 60 surrendered and three were killed.
Delos Santos said that “the remaining number of ASG militants is between 50 to 70.”
But he voiced optimism that the military “can soon bring an end to this small but violent militant group.”


Queen Elizabeth II stands alone to bid farewell to her ‘strength’ Prince Philip

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in St. George’s Chapel during the funeral of Prince Philip, the man who had been by her side for 73 years, at Windsor Castle, Windsor, England. (AP)
Updated 17 April 2021

Queen Elizabeth II stands alone to bid farewell to her ‘strength’ Prince Philip

  • The queen in 1997 described Philip as her "strength and stay" over their decades of marriage
  • Mourners at the ceremony in Windsor Castle, including Prince Charles and his sons Princes William and Harry, were limited in number

WINDSOR: Queen Elizabeth and her family paid their last respects to Prince Philip on Saturday at a funeral that celebrated his naval past, his international heritage and seven decades of service in which he helped guide the queen through repeated crises.
Elizabeth, dressed in black and in a white trimmed black mask, stood alone as the funeral service began in St George's Chapel, which dates back to 1475.
Mourners at the ceremony in Windsor Castle, including Prince Charles and his sons Princes William and Harry, were limited in number and separated due to COVID-19 rules.
"We are here today in St George’s Chapel to commit into the hands of God the soul of his servant Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh," the Dean of Windsor, David Conner, said.
"We have been inspired by his unwavering loyalty to our Queen, by his service to the Nation and the Commonwealth, by his courage, fortitude and faith."


After the nation observed a minute's silence in brilliant sunshine, Harry and William took up their places on opposite sides of the chapel with the final resting place of Tudor monarch Henry VIII dividing them.
Philip, officially known as the Duke of Edinburgh, died aged 99 on April 9. The queen in 1997 described Philip as her "strength and stay" over their decades of marriage.
His naval cap and sword lay on top of the coffin, which was covered with the Duke of Edinburgh's personal standard featuring the Danish coat of arms, the Greek cross, Edinburgh Castle and the stripes of the Mountbatten family.
The choir sang a sailors' hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save", and shortly before he is lowered into the Royal Vault, the Russian "Kontakion of the Departed", a hymn of the Orthodox and Eastern churches, will echo around the ancient church.
Philip's coffin was borne to the chapel on a bespoke Defender TD 130 in military green as a minute gun fired eight times.
Before the procession, military bands spaced out across the quadrangle of Windsor Castle to play the prince's chosen music, including "I Vow To Thee My Country,", "Jerusalem" and "Nimrod".
Philip, who married Elizabeth in 1947, helped the young queen adapt the monarchy to the changing world of the post-World War Two era as the loss of empire and the decline of deference challenged the world's most prominent royal family.
She has now been widowed just as she grapples with one of the gravest crises to hit the royal family in decades - allegations of racism and neglect by it from her grandson Harry and his American-born wife Meghan.
Attention on Harry
Much media attention will focus on the royals' behaviour towards Harry as he made his first public appearance with the family since the couple gave an explosive interview to Oprah Winfrey last month.
In the interview they accused one unnamed royal of making a racist comment, and said Meghan's pleas for help when she felt suicidal were ignored.
The couple, who moved to Los Angeles and quit royal duties last year, laid bare their perceptions of the family's attitudes in what amounted to a critique of the old-fashioned customs of an ancient institution.
Meghan said she had been silenced by "the Firm" while Harry said his father, Charles, had refused to take his calls. Harry said both Charles and his brother William were trapped in the royal family.
Meghan watched the funeral at her home in California after she was advised by her doctor not to travel while pregnant, a source familiar with the situation said. US networks showed the funeral live as did British TV stations.
Mourners eschewed the tradition of wearing military uniforms, a step newspapers said was to prevent embarrassment to Harry, who despite serving two tours in Afghanistan during his army career, is not be entitled to wear a uniform because he was stripped of his honorary military titles.
Prince Andrew, who stepped down from public duties in 2019 over controversy surrounding his what he termed his "ill-judged" association with late US financier Jeffrey Epstein, had wanted to wear an admiral's uniform at the funeral, British media reported.
Queen alone
The palace emphasised beforehand that while the occasion would have the due pageantry that marks the passing of a senior royal, it remained an occasion for a mourning family to mark the passing of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
There were just 30 mourners inside the chapel for the service because of continuing coronavirus restrictions in Britain.
Philip's dedication to his duty earned him widespread popularity in Britain, but he was also criticised by some for a number of off-the-cuff racist or abrupt comments which shocked princes, priests and presidents.
"He was authentically himself, with a seriously sharp wit, and could hold the attention of any room due to his charm and also because you never knew what he might say next," Harry said of his grandfather.
Philip was a decorated Royal Navy veteran of World War Two and his funeral, much of which was planned in meticulous detail by the prince himself, will have a strong military feel, with personnel from across the armed forces playing prominent roles.


UN urges Dhaka to relocate Rohingya to island in ‘phased manner’

Updated 17 April 2021

UN urges Dhaka to relocate Rohingya to island in ‘phased manner’

  • Report follows a three-day study of remote Bhasan Char by UN experts

DHAKA: The UN has followed up a review of a remote island facility set up by Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees by calling on Dhaka to carry out the relocation process in a “phased manner.”
The recommendation comes despite warnings by rights groups that the site is vulnerable to severe weather and flooding.
A UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson in Dhaka, Charlie Goodlake, told Arab News on Saturday that the UN team is recommending that any future relocations “are undertaken in a gradual and phased manner.”
The UN planned to hold “further discussions” with Dhaka on the initiative, he said.
“It would help to ensure that the governance structure, facilities and services on the island meet the needs of Rohingya refugees living there,” Goodlake added.
The UN report released to the media late on Friday comes a month after 18 UN experts conducted their first visit to Bhasan Char island on March 17.
Soon after the UN’s visit, a 10-member team of diplomats — comprising heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands — also visited the island on April 3 to review the facilities.
Bangladesh has moved 18,500 Rohingya refugees from crammed camps in its Cox’s Bazar district to Bhasan Char, dubbed Rohingya island, since December last year.
It wants to eventually relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the overcrowded camps to the remote island, located in the Bay of Bengal and 60 km from the mainland.
Bhasan Char was built by Dhaka in 2006 using Himalayan silt and sediment to ease the overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar district. The project cost more than $360 million.
Each Bhasan Char house has five-square-meter concrete rooms with small windows, and a toilet for 11 people.
However, the UNHCR said it was concerned about the island’s vulnerability to severe weather and flooding, leading to a UN proposal in December 2019 for a “technical assessment” of the site.
The three-day visit in March marked a breakthrough in the proposal and follows attempts by the UN refugee agency to visit the island amid concerns about whether the relocation of the Rohingya refugees to the island was safe.
Similar concerns were raised by several international rights organizations, which urged Bangladesh not to relocate the Rohingya to Bhasan Char, warning that the island was located in an area prone to cyclones and could be submerged during a high tide.
Dhaka said that it had set up 120 cyclone shelters — built more than a meter above ground — which could be used as hospitals, schools and community centers throughout the year.
However, in its latest report, the UN said it “recognizes the prevailing humanitarian and protection needs of the Rohingya refugees already relocated to Bhasan Char” and proposed holding more talks on the process with Dhaka soon.
“We hope the discussions will take place as early as possible. The discussions would be on the UN’s future operational engagement on Bhasan Char, including on the policies that govern the life and wellbeing of Rohingya refugees on the island,” Goodlake told Arab News.
He said the UN team recognizes the extensive investments made by the Bangladesh government in Bhasan Char, “including the facilities and infrastructure and other offshore coastal protection measures.”
However, he said that to further mitigate risks, the UN is calling for an “emergency management plan in the case of severe weather events, including the pre-positioning of essential supplies and goods on the island.”
The UN report also recommended that Bhasan Char be managed by “civilian authorities in an inclusive and consultative manner.”
On Friday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen said that the UN had made “very good and positive observations” in its latest report.
In previous comments to Arab News, Momen also urged the UN to start its operations on Bhasan Char as it would be a “huge task to manage 100,000 refugees on the island.”
Bangladesh is currently hosting more than 1.1 million Rohingya at Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, believed to be the world’s largest refugee settlement.
The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group, many of whom fled persecution in Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be “Bengalis” from Bangladesh, even though their families have lived in the country for generations.
Almost all have been denied citizenship for decades, and are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.