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

Image shows a housing complex where Rohingya refugees are being relocated in the Bhashan Char island of Noakhali District. (File/AFP)
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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.


Johnson ‘anxious’ over rise of Indian virus variant in UK

Updated 13 May 2021

Johnson ‘anxious’ over rise of Indian virus variant in UK

  • “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it," Johnson said
  • Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday he was “anxious” about a rise in the UK of the coronavirus variant first identified in India.
His worries surfaced after a closely-monitored study of infections in England found the variant is becoming more prevalent just ahead of the next big easing of lockdown restrictions.
“It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do. There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”
In its latest assessment published Thursday, Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August following a strict lockdown and a successful rollout of vaccines. However, it warned that the Indian variant should be closely monitored.
The so-called REACT study found that the Indian variant, designated “of concern” because it could be more transmissible, was identified in 7.7 percent of the 127,000 cases tested between Apr.15 and May 3.
Professor Steven Riley from Imperial College said it’s unclear whether the Indian variant is more transmissible but warned that “this is a risk.”
Though the British government and scientists have said new cases may start to go up in coming weeks, it’s unclear whether that will lead to a big increase in hospitalizations and deaths given that most of those people deemed vulnerable have been vaccinated.
Over the past few weeks as India has suffered a catastrophic resurgence of the virus, concerns have grown around the world about potential new variants bypassing the protections offered by vaccines.
Across the UK, lockdown restrictions are being lifted. The next easing in England is set to take place on Monday when two households will be able to mix indoors and pubs and restaurants will be able to serve customers inside, among other changes. The other nations of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have also laid out similar plans for the coming weeks.
The government hopes to lift most remaining restrictions on social contact in June.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get,” Johnson said.
The government’s scientific advisory committee, known as SAGE, will be making recommendations about the pandemic’s path. It is due to meet later.
Currently there are few signs the previous easing has led to an increase in new infections, which are averaging around 2,300 a day across the UK, compared with nearly 70,000 recorded in January at the peak of the second wave.
The fall in infections has led to a sharp decline in daily coronavirus-related deaths, with 11 reported on Thursday. Still, the UK has recorded Europe’s highest virus-related death toll, at more than 127,600.
The successful rollout of vaccines has also helped keep a lid on infections alongside the lockdown. Around 54 percent of the British population has had at least one dose of vaccine with about a quarter having received two doses. The rollout is being expanded further, with vaccines now being made available to people aged 38 and 39.


Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Updated 13 May 2021

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

  • German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days
  • Two synagogues were attacked and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since violence erupted in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

BERLIN: Germany’s leading Jewish group on Thursday sharply condemned protests in front of a synagogue in the western city of Gelsenkirchen as “pure antisemitism.”
Several other German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days.
At least two synagogues were attacked, and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since the latest eruption of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany tweeted a video of dozens of protesters in Gelsenkirchen waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and yelling expletives about Jews.
“Jew hatred in the middle of Gelsenkirchen in front of the synagogue. The times in which Jews were cursed in the middle of the street should have long been over. This is pure antisemitism, nothing else!” the group tweeted.
The German government repeatedly condemned anti-Israeli and antisemitic attacks earlier this week and said that “the perpetrators must be found and held responsible and Jewish institutions must be protected thoroughly.”
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Funke Media Group that “there must be zero tolerance for attacks on synagogues in our country.”
“All of us are called on to make it very clear that we do not accept if Jews in Germany are made responsible for the events in the Middle East — neither in the streets nor on social media,” Maas added.
The protests in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday were dispersed by police, German news agency DPA reported, but authorities reported further incidents in other parts of the country.
Some cities which had hoisted Israeli flags in front of their city halls on Wednesday in remembrance of the start of German-Israeli diplomatic relations on May 12, 1965, reported that the flags were torn down and sometimes burned.
An Israeli flag in front of a city hall in the western town of Solingen was torn and burnt and two Israeli flags in Berlin were also torn down late Wednesday night.
On Tuesday night, police stopped 13 suspects in the western city of Muenster near a synagogue after an Israeli flag was burned there. In the western city of Bonn, police said several people damaged the entrance of a synagogue with stones and investigators found a burned flag as well. In nearby Duesseldorf, somebody burned garbage on top of a memorial for a former synagogue.
Several cities and states in Germany have since upped their security and raised police presence in front of Jewish institutions, dpa reported.
In Berlin, some 100 people also assembled for a pro-Israel rally on Wednesday night in front of the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate waving Israeli flags and holding a banner saying “We stand with Israel — Now and Forever.”


Asylum seekers released after Scotland deportation standoff

Updated 6 min 15 sec ago

Asylum seekers released after Scotland deportation standoff

  • Hundreds of locals protested a Home Office removal of asylum seekers, preventing immigration enforcers from carrying out the action
  • Politicians and charities slammed the Home Office’s attempt to deport asylum seekers believed to be Muslims on Eid

LONDON: Immigration authorities in Scotland have agreed to release two asylum seekers they had detained ahead of deportation after members of their local community protested and blocked their vehicle from leaving.

Early on Thursday people surrounded a Home Office vehicle in Glasgow, Scotland, believed to contain two immigrants who had been removed from a flat.

Hundreds of people gathered in the area, chanting slogans and preventing the van from moving safely. One man laid under the vehicle to prevent it from moving. Shouts of “Leave our neighbors, let them go” and “Cops go home” could be heard. 

Following an hours-long standoff, a senior Scottish police officer intervened to ensure the men were released and the standoff ended.

In a statement, Police Scotland Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland announced the men had been released.

It said: “In order to protect the safety, public health and well-being of all people involved in the detention and subsequent protest in Kenmure Street, Pollokshields, Ch Supt Mark Sutherland has, following a suitable risk assessment, taken the operational decision to release the men detained by UK Immigration Enforcement back into their community meantime.”

The police had earlier stressed that it does not provide assistance with the removal of asylum seekers but aims to keep peace on the streets.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denounced the attempted deportation, branding it “dangerous” and “unacceptable.”

“I disagree fundamentally with Home Office immigration policy but even putting that aside, this action was unacceptable,” she wrote on Facebook. “To act in this way, in the heart of a Muslim community as they celebrated Eid, and in an area experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak was a health and safety risk.

“Both as MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) and as FM (First Minister), I will be demanding assurances from the UK government that they will never again create, through their actions, such a dangerous situation. No assurances were given — and frankly, no empathy shown — when I managed to speak to a junior minister earlier.”

She added: “I am proud to represent a constituency and lead a country that welcomes and shows support to asylum seekers and refugees.”

Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, was among the hundreds of neighbors protesting against the action.

“We are here against the hostile environment created by the Tories and the British state,” Asif said. “The same people who ran from British and American bombs are in the back of the van right now and are about to be deported.

“It is on Eid, you know. The guys are not even allowed to pray. How do you do that in a democratic society? It is a sad day.”


Macron’s party pulls support from woman in Muslim headscarf

Updated 13 May 2021

Macron’s party pulls support from woman in Muslim headscarf

  • Sara Zemmahi is shown in a campaign poster with a white headscarf before the June elections
  • While France bans Muslim headscarves in classrooms, they aren’t forbidden in the public space or on campaign posters

PARIS: France’s long-standing debate over the Muslim headscarf has landed in a local political race, giving it a national message, with a decision by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party to withdraw its backing for a candidate because she was pictured in a poster with her head covered.
“I’m frankly pained by the decision,” Mahfoud Benali, the lead candidate on the list for a district in the southern city of Montpellier, said Wednesday of the move by Macron’s party to refuse support for Sara Zemmahi, a quality engineer, from his list.
Zemmahi is shown in a campaign poster with a white headscarf before the June elections. She was on a work trip and not immediately available to comment, Benali said on a TV talk show on Channel 8.
While France bans Muslim headscarves in classrooms, they aren’t forbidden in the public space or on campaign posters.
However, Stanislas Guerini, head of Macron’s LREM party, told radio station RTL Tuesday that, nevertheless, the party wouldn’t back Zemmahi, one of four people in the poster.
“We consider that ostentatious religious signs don’t have their place on posters, whatever the religion,” Guerini said.
The poster for the June 20 and 27 local elections shows two men and two female candidates, including Zemmahi, under the sign “Different But United For You.” On the bottom, it notes the candidates stand for the “presidential majority.”
The decision, which drew criticism from some members of Macron’s own party, underscored the divisiveness of France’s long-standing debate on headscarves, and secularism, and how it may play out in politics before next year’s presidential vote. Macron is expected to try to renew his mandate, and, if so, could find himself in a repeat of the 2017 race, facing off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
It was a tweet of the poster by the No.2 official in Le Pen’s National Rally party, Jordan Bardella, that brought the issue into the public eye, along with his remark: “That’s the fight against separatism,” a reference to Macron’s priority effort to rid France of political Islam and extremists.
In a later tweet, Bardella said the Muslim headscarf is “contrary to all our values” and his National Rally party “will forbid it in public.” He was clearly making a reference to an eventual victory of Le Pen in next year’s presidential race.


Exclusion from US Census ‘weakens the Arab American voice,’ expert warns

Updated 13 May 2021

Exclusion from US Census ‘weakens the Arab American voice,’ expert warns

  • During a discussion on the Ray Hanania radio show, they said this lack of official recognition means the community misses out on many benefits
  • Currently the census does not allow people to identify as Arab or Middle Eastern; instead they are forced to identify themselves as white

Experts warned on Wednesday that the lack of recognition and inclusion in the US Census continues to undermine the strength of the Arab American community.

Because the demographics of their community are not precisely measured, Arabs in the US fail to benefit from more than $80 billion in Federal grants, and they are excluded from policies designed to enhance political representation, professor Edmund Ghareeb and researcher Matthew Jaber Stiffler said during a discussion broadcast live on the Ray Hanania radio show. Even their sense of community pride is undermined, they added.

Currently the census does not have an option that allows people to identify as Arab or Middle Eastern. Instead they are forced to identify themselves as white.

Ghareeb, an author and specialist on Arab American affairs, and Stiffler, who works with the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, agreed that this “census exclusion” is preventing Arab Americans from fully enjoying the benefits of life in America.

“The way race and ethnicity is collected on the census is directed by the Office of Management and Budget, and because of that it applies to all federal agencies,” said Stiffler, who also leads a national research initiative through the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the nation’s largest not-for-profit Arab American grassroots social-service agency.

 

“For instance at the office of Minority Health, which is a federal agency, Arab Americans cannot get grants to study the health of Arab Americans because we are not considered a minority — we are considered a part of the white community. It is not just the census, it is the fact that Arabs are not counted all across all of the government.”

 

Ghareeb, who has taught at the American University in Washington, Georgetown University and George Washington University, said the damage caused by this long-running failure of the census to recognize Arab ethnicity has been significant.

 

“The census is important primarily because, right now, Arab Americans are not able to participate as fully as other communities in getting government positions, for example, or support in the health area and the unemployment area,” he said.

 

“Of course, for some it is more important than that: it is the recognition and identity of your own community.”

Ghareeb and Stiffler identified a number of ways in which Arab Americans lose out because their ethnicity is not recognized by the census. They said, for example, that it affects the community’s political clout, access to federal funding, its sense of community pride, and leads to marginalization by mainstream businesses and industries, including the mainstream news media.

“It is really tough because it really impacts everything, from education to health to political representation,” Stiffler said. “The Arab American community does not see itself. We don’t even know how many of us there are. We have estimates but they range from 2.5 million to 4.5 million.

 

“So I think it is really about seeing us, and seeing us in the industries that we are in. We know Arab Americans are very entrepreneurial but if you go to all of the federal business indexes, Arab Americans are not listed as being a group that owns businesses. So it is really hard to see the impact that Arab Americans have made, if we are not counted.”

Ghareeb said part of the problem lies in the varied nature of the community itself, which includes people from 22 Arab nations but also reflects the sub-ethnicities within each country. He added that the community needs to become more active and more demanding of its rights.

“It’s important because of the politics as well, especially when it comes to foreign policy and what is going on in the region,” he said. “I think that when Arab Americans have a voice they will also have more of a voice to influence American foreign policy. All of these things are extremely important.”

 

As a topical example of a way in which Arabs are excluded from official consideration as a distinct community in the US, Stiffler cited the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Southeast Michigan, ACCESS, the largest Arab American community non-profit, has given 20,000 doses of the COVID vaccine in the past few weeks,” he said.

“If you go onto the Michigan State dashboard — it would take some work but you could find this information — it says that of those 20,000 doses, two were (given to Arabs) because that is just the way (it is): it is very difficult to get Arabs identified in any of this data. So it looks like only two Arabs were vaccinated by ACCESS and not what was more likely 15,000.” 

 

Both experts said they favor a “MENA” category for identification, rather than “Arab,” because this would allow each individual Arab identity to be included. A MENA category has been considered as a category for ethnicity but its inclusion was stymied by lack of support from sitting presidents, who have the power to influence the contents of the census without seeking congressional approval.

Ghareeb noted that census categories for Asians and Southeast Asians were added as a result of presidential directives.

“There is no doubt that the Arab American community is losing some important benefits that other communities have achieved,” he added. “My preference based on what the science and the data tells us is right now is that MENA is the best category.

 

“And the way the census was going to do it was they were going to have MENA (as an option), but it was going to be a write-in option. You could put anything on that line — Iranian, Lebanese, Chaldean — and then they were going to count all of that. So not only would we get the MENA count but we would get the disaggregated counts of all these other ethnicities and nationalities so we would know who everybody is.

 

“It was going to be wonderful. Of course, that didn’t happen. But I think the broader the category, the better. Let people self-identify under that and we will count everybody that way.”

 

•  The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 Radio and in Washington DC on WDMV AM 700 radio at 8 a.m. on Wednesday mornings. Hosted by the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News, the leading English-language newspaper in the Middle East, the show is also streamed live at Facebook.com/ArabNews. The radio podcast is available at ArabNews.com/RayRadioShow.

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