Rohingya refugees hope for better life as Bangladesh moves them to remote island

Rohingya refugees make their way to their new home on an island in the Bay of Bengal. (Supplied)
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Updated 31 December 2020
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Rohingya refugees hope for better life as Bangladesh moves them to remote island

  • UN Refugee Agency not involved in relocation to island vulnerable to severe weather, flooding

DHAKA: A second group of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were on Tuesday taken to an island in the Bay of Bengal to start new lives, despite UN concerns for their welfare.

The Bangladeshi navy provided transport for 1,804 Rohingya Muslim refugees — members of an ethnic and religious minority group who have fled violence and persecution in Myanmar — to the isolated Bhashan Char island from overcrowded makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar.

They followed a first group of 1,642 relocated to the island, 30 km from the mainland, in early December.

Under the $370 million relocation project, the Bangladeshi government has built housing units and infrastructure on Bhashan Char for 100,000 Rohingyas to take pressure off the main refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar that already hosts more than 1.1 million people.

However, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it had not been involved in the relocation operation and expressed concerns over the vulnerability of the island — which only emerged from the sea 20 years ago — to severe weather and flooding.

Mohammed Deen Islam, 35, one of those who arrived on the island on Tuesday, told Arab News: “We are being provided with living room in buildings made of concrete. Here we have far better accommodation facilities compared with the squalid camps at Cox’s Bazar. It’s a very beautiful place.

“Some of my relatives came here earlier at the first attempt of relocation. Seeing the facilities here, they invited me to come,” he said, adding that he had voluntarily applied for relocation with his wife and four children.

Another Rohingya refugee, Nurul Islam, 39, said his relatives who had moved to the island in the first group told him it offered better opportunities to earn a living.

“From my relatives who came here in the first batch, I heard that there were huge livelihood opportunities here on this island. I want to start a new life here and will start fishing as I have previous experience for this job,” he added.

Monowara Begum, 27, told Arab News: “We want peace and happiness. I heard that Bhashan Char was a safer place to live and that is why I volunteered to come here.

“In recent months, there were several incidents of clashes among different Rohingya groups at Cox’s Bazar and sometimes it became unsafe,” she said.

The Bangladeshi government said it was well-prepared to improve the well-being of refugees through relocation and the creation of job opportunities in areas such as cattle rearing, poultry farming, agriculture, and fishing. 

“We will start these livelihood activities once the relocation process is completed and the Rohingyas are settled in their new place,” said Mohammed Shamsuddoza Noyon, additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner of the Bangladeshi government.

“We have already handed over the keys to the new houses to the refugees who landed on Tuesday. Initially, they will be provided with cooked food but shortly they will receive gas stoves and food aid to cook their own meals,” he told Arab News.

He added that the initiative had been supported by local NGOs and that 20 health workers were on the island to provide medical help. 

“So far around 30 local aid agencies have enrolled to work for the wellbeing of the Rohingyas and the number is increasing gradually,” Noyon said.

But the relocation program has faced opposition from aid groups, especially the UNHCR, which said it had not been involved in the process and was concerned as to whether those going to the island had made the move through their own free will.

“The UN has not been involved in preparations for the movement or the identification of refugees for relocation. The UN has emphasized that Rohingya refugees must be able to make a free and informed decision about relocating to Bhashan Char based upon relevant, accurate, and updated information,” said UNHCR spokesman, Mostofa Mohammed Sazzad Hossain.

He added that the refugee agency had asked Bangladeshi authorities for an assessment of the island’s condition.

In 1991, nearly 143,000 people in coastal areas of Bangladesh were killed by a cyclone that produced a tidal wave more than four meters high.

The government, however, claims the island is safe as it had built a two-meter-high embankment to protect the housing area.

“The UN’s request to undertake assessments has been under consideration by the government for some time,” Hossain said, adding that the agency required the assessment to decide whether it could be engaged in operations on the island.

“The UN would need to carry out this work before being able to decide on its operational engagement on the island. We would look forward to having substantive discussions on this important matter soon,” he said.


Four wounded in Sydney church stabbing, man arrested

Updated 9 sec ago
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Four wounded in Sydney church stabbing, man arrested

  • A member of the congregation at an Assyrian church rushed at the dais and slashed at the bishop, causing pandemonium.
  • Incident came two days after a man with a knife killed six at a shopping mall in the east of Sydney
SYDNEY: Four people are being treated for “non-life threatening injuries” after a stabbing at a live-streamed church service in Sydney on Monday, the latest knife attack to rock the city.
Australian police said they had arrested one man, after a member of the congregation at an Assyrian church rushed at the dais and slashed at the bishop, causing pandemonium.
Amid the panic and screams, several churchgoers rushed to safety while others tried to subdue the attacker.
The ambulance service told AFP that four men aged between 20 and 70 were being treated for injuries, including lacerations.
“The injured individuals suffered non-life threatening injuries and were treated by New South Wales Ambulance paramedics before being conveyed to hospital,” police added.
“A male was arrested and remains in police custody.”
The incident came two days after a man with a knife killed six at a shopping mall in the east of Sydney.
AFP verified video of Monday’s attack as being taken at the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney’s western suburb of Wakeley.
The neighborhood is a hub for Sydney’s small Christian Assyrian community, many of whom fled persecution and war in Iraq and Syria.
There were tense scenes outside the church after the attack, with hundreds of members of the local community trying to make their way past a phalanx of riot police to reach the suspect.
An AFP journalist at the scene saw projectiles being hurled, before police with riot shields and armor pushed the protesters away from the church.
“He has been removed from the church and taken to an undisclosed location,” police said.
They urged the public to avoid the area amid “a large police response.”
The Christ the Good Shepherd Church holds a bible session every Monday evening.
Police said they began to receive emergency calls from the scene “about 7.10 pm.”
Australians are still reeling from Saturday’s stabbing, which was carried out by a 40-year-old man with a history of mental illness.
In that attack, videos shared on social media showed unshaven itinerant Joel Cauchi pursuing mostly female victims as he rampaged through the vast, crowded Westfield shopping complex in Bondi Junction on Saturday afternoon.
A black ribbon was projected onto the Sydney Opera House on Monday as a mark of respect for the victims.

Indonesia, Malaysia warn of Middle East escalation, distraction from Israel’s war on Gaza

Updated 15 April 2024
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Indonesia, Malaysia warn of Middle East escalation, distraction from Israel’s war on Gaza

  • Drone and missile attack at the weekend was Iran’s first strike on Israel from Iranian territory
  • Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the staunchest, most vocal supporters of Palestine in Asia 

JAKARTA: Indonesia and Malaysia have warned of escalating tensions in the Middle East and Israel’s attempts to use them to deflect attention from its deadly war on Gaza.

Fears of a regional conflict have grown since an Israeli airstrike destroyed an Iranian Consulate building in Damascus earlier this month, killing 13 people, including two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders.  

In retaliation, Iran launched explosive drones and fired missiles at Israel late on Saturday — its first direct attack against the country from Iranian territory. 

Following the attack, Indonesia and Malaysia called for restraint to prevent escalation in the Middle East. 

“Indonesia is deeply concerned over the escalation of the situation in the Middle East and calls on all parties to exercise restraint,” the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Sunday evening. 

“Indonesia urges the UN Security Council to act immediately to de-escalate tensions and continue working towards lasting peace in the Middle East, including by ending the illegal occupation of Palestine and various violations of international law by Israel.” 

Indonesia also called for a “just settlement” for Palestine through a two-state solution, which “will be the key to maintaining regional security,” the ministry said. 

Israel’s strike in Syria and Iran’s subsequent retaliation over the weekend took place against the backdrop of the onslaught on Gaza, which has killed over 33,700 Palestinians and displaced around 1.9 million people. 

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s military operation in Gaza in October, Jakarta has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding an end to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

Neighboring Malaysia, also a vocal supporter of Palestine, warned that any further form of provocation or retaliation could ignite a regional conflict “that will not serve the region nor the Palestinian cause,” Foreign Minister Mohamad Hasan said in a statement. 

“The international community is also reminded not to lose sight of the objective of ensuring the freedom of the Palestinians and their rights to their own lands. Any distraction from this objective is what Israel wants, which is to deflect the global community’s attention from their nefarious, inhumane and unconscionable acts in Palestine,” he said. 

“Malaysia reiterates that the main objective is to find peace and a permanent solution to the plight of the Palestinian people and not widen the conflict.”


France hosts Sudan conference a year into ‘forgotten’ war

Updated 15 April 2024
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France hosts Sudan conference a year into ‘forgotten’ war

  • A total of $895 million had been pledged after separate announcements from France, Germany, the EU and the US
  • Aid workers say a year of war has led to a catastrophe, but the world has turned away from the country of 48 million

PARIS: France and its allies Monday sought to drum up hundreds of millions in aid for Sudan a year since its civil war erupted, sparking one of the world’s worst and most underfunded humanitarian crises.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and 8.5 million more have been forced to flee their homes since fighting broke out on April 15 last year between rival generals.

Sudan is experiencing “one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory,” with more people displaced inside the country than anywhere else in the world and a fast-growing hunger crisis, the United Nations says.

At the international conference in Paris, France is seeking contributions from the international community, and attention to a crisis that officials say is being crowded out of the global conversation by ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

“For a year the Sudanese people have been the victims of a terrible war,” French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said. Yet they had also suffered from “being forgotten” and “indifference.”

“This is the reason for our meetings today: to break the silence surrounding this conflict and mobilize the international community,” he said in opening remarks.

The conference, co-hosted by Germany and the European Union, was to include a ministerial meeting on political matters as well as a humanitarian meeting to raise funds for the crisis.

Aid workers say a year of war has led to a catastrophe, but the world has turned away from the country of 48 million as conflict rages between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Force.

Only five percent of the 3.8-billion-euro ($4.1 billion) target in the UN’s latest humanitarian appeal had been funded ahead of the conference this year, according to the French foreign ministry.

At its opening, a total of 840 million euros ($895 million) had been pledged after separate announcements from France, Germany, the European Union and the United States.

A diplomatic source, asking not to be named, said total donations could well top “a billion euros” by the end of the meeting.

On the fifth anniversary of a fire that ravaged the French capital’s Notre Dame cathedral, the charity Save the Children contrasted the lack of donations for Sudan with the international response to the Paris blaze.

“It is staggering that after a fire in which nobody died, donors from across the world were so moved to pledge funds to restore Notre Dame,” said its country director in Sudan, Arif Noor.

“Meanwhile, children in Sudan are left to fend for themselves as war rages around them, starvation and disease are on the increase and almost the entire country’s child population has been out of school for a year.”

Fourteen million children need humanitarian assistance to survive, Save the Children says.

Will Carter, Sudan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, earlier said civilians in Sudan were “enduring starvation, mass sexual violence, large-scale ethnic killing, and executions.”

“Millions more are displaced, and yet the world continues to look the other way.”

An estimated 1.8 million people have fled Sudan — many to neighboring Chad, now also suffering a humanitarian crisis — and 6.7 million have been internally displaced.

The ministerial meeting, behind closed doors, notably brings together representatives from Sudan’s neighbors, as well as from Gulf nations and western powers, including the United States and Britain, along with regional organizations and the United Nations.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock lamented that mediation efforts so far had failed to stem the conflict.

“We want to work toward better coordination,” she said.

Meanwhile, actors from Sudan’s civil society, including activists, unionists and journalists, were getting together to discuss “a possible peace process, and what happens after the war,” an official said.

Laetitia Bader, at NGO Human Rights Watch, said she hoped that the conference would deliver “a very tough message” to the belligerents, including threats of sanctions.

The warring parties had blocked access for humanitarian assistance, pillaged foreign financial aid and targeted humanitarian workers in attacks, she said.

“This conference is very important, but it should not become an excuse to turn the page and forget about Sudan, again,” she added.


World leaders urge Middle East tension de-escalation

Updated 15 April 2024
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World leaders urge Middle East tension de-escalation

  • Leaders urge restraint and rational decision-making to avoid further instability in the region

LONDON: World leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, and the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, emphasized on Monday the need to prevent escalation in the Middle East following Iran’s failed attack on Israel.

They urged restraint and rational decision-making to avoid further instability in the region.

EU’s Borrell says Middle East on cliff edge

The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Monday the Middle East stood “on the edge of the cliff” and called for de-escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in response to a suspected Israeli attack on the Tehran’s consulate in Damascus that killed seven officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards including two senior commanders.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the April 1 airstrike on the consulate in Syria’s capital.

“We’re on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. “We have to step on the brakes and reverse gear.”

Borrell said he expected a response from Israel to the unprecedented aerial attack by Iran but hoped it would not spark further escalation.

He said there was “profound division” within the Israel’s right-wing governing coalition between hardliners seeking fierce retaliation and a “more moderate and sensible” faction.

That faction advocates for retaliation, Borrell said, “but in a way that avoids a response to the response”.

Borrell, who spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian late on Sunday, said the EU needed to have the best possible relations with Iran despite the sanctions the bloc has imposed on the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear energy programme and other issues.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that Iran does not become a nuclear power and that the Middle East is pacified,” he said.

UK's Cameron urges Israel restraint after Iran attack

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron urged Israel not to retaliate after Iran’s drone and missile attack, saying it should “think with head as well as heart” because Tehran’s strike had been a near total failure.
The strike by more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down by its Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan. It followed a suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria on April 1.
“I think they’re perfectly justified to think they should respond because they have been attacked, but we are urging them as friends to think with head as well as heart, to be smart as well as tough,” Cameron told BBC TV.
He said he was urging Israel not to escalate the tensions in the Middle East.
“In many ways this has been a double defeat for Iran. The attack was an almost total failure, and they revealed to the world that they are the malign influence in the region prepared to do this. So our hope is that there won’t be a retaliatory response,” he told Sky News.
Cameron said Britain would also work with allies to look at imposing more sanctions on Iran, and it urged Israel to return its focus on agreeing a ceasefire with Iran-backed Hamas in the Gaza war.
Macron says will do everything to avoid Middle East ‘conflagration’
President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that France would help do everything to avoid an escalation in the Middle East.
“We will do everything to avoid a conflagration that is to say an escalation,” he told the BFMTV news channel.
“For several years now we have had an air base in Jordan to fight terrorism,” he said.
“Jordanian airspace was violated... We made our planes take off and we intercepted what we had to intercept.”
Experts say Israel was able to neutralize most of the missiles and drones.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne on Sunday said he had asked the foreign ministry to summon the Iranian ambassador on Monday to express a “message of firmness.”


Philippines’ Marcos says will not hand former president Duterte to ICC over drug war

Updated 15 April 2024
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Philippines’ Marcos says will not hand former president Duterte to ICC over drug war

  • Marcos also said the trilateral agreement signed between his country and the US and Japan was not directed at anyone

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos said Monday he would not hand his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte to the International Criminal Court, which is investigating his deadly drug war.

Thousands of people have been killed in the anti-narcotics campaign started by Duterte in 2016 and continued under Marcos.

Asked Monday if he would hand Duterte — who has accused him of being a drug addict — to the ICC if it issued a warrant for his arrest, Marcos said “no.”

“We don’t recognize the warrant that they will send to us. That’s a no,” he said at a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

“We are well within international law when we take the position of not recognizing the jurisdiction of the ICC in the Philippines,” Marcos said.

Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in 2019 after the Hague-based tribunal started probing allegations of human rights abuses committed during his drug war.

It launched a formal inquiry into Duterte’s crackdown in September 2021, only to suspend it two months later after Manila said it was re-examining several hundred cases of drug operations that led to deaths at the hands of police, hitmen and vigilantes.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor later asked to reopen the inquiry, and pre-trial judges at the court eventually gave the green light in late January 2023 — a decision that Manila appealed shortly afterwards and lost.

More than 6,000 people were killed in anti-drug operations under Duterte, according to official data released by the Philippines. ICC prosecutors estimate the death toll at between 12,000 and 30,000.

Marcos has repeatedly ruled out rejoining the court and insisted it does not have jurisdiction in the country because there is a functioning judicial system.

Relations between the Marcos and Duterte families have deteriorated in the past two years.

Marcos, the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator, won the 2022 presidential election by a landslide following a massive social media misinformation campaign whitewashing his family’s history.

His vice presidential running mate Sara Duterte, the daughter of the former president, helped him win vital support from her family’s home island of Mindanao.

In recent months there has been a very public falling out between the families as they begin to shore up their rival support bases and secure key positions ahead of the mid-term elections in 2025 and presidential elections in 2028.

NO ADDITIONAL US BASES

Marcos also said the US would not be given access to more Philippine military bases.

“The answer to that is no. The Philippines has no plan to open or to establish more EDCA bases,” Marcos said in response to a question.

Manila last year announced the locations of four more military bases it is allowing the US military to use on top of the five agreed on under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, known as EDCA.

The deal allows US troops to rotate through and store defense equipment and supplies.

The four additional bases include sites near the hotly disputed South China Sea and another not far from Taiwan.

Marcos made his remarks during a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines that was attended by members of the Philippine military and foreign diplomats.

Marcos also said the trilateral agreement signed between his country and the United States and Japan was not directed at anyone, but merely a strengthening of relations between the three.

Marcos met with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in the nations’ first trilateral summit in Washington last week.

A death of a Filipino soldier in the South China Sea could be grounds to invoke a mutual defense treaty with the US, Marcos told foreign correspondents in Manila.