Bangladesh refuses proposal to accept new Rohingyas

A boat enters Shahpari Island Jetty Ghat in Teknaf yesterday. Locals said, there were five Rohingyas, one of them was shot

Rohingyas are fleeing their homes and dispersing to different parts of the state to survive amidst the conflict between the army and the insurgent group Arakan Army in Rakhine, Myanmar.

In this situation, the United Nations has requested Bangladesh to provide shelter to hundreds of Rohingyas who have arrived at the border areas of the two countries on humanitarian grounds.

However, Bangladesh has clearly stated that it is not possible to accommodate any new Rohingya.

According to official sources, such discussions took place during the meeting of the National Task Force on Rohingya Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka on Wednesday. The meeting, chaired by Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, was attended by representatives from various ministries and departments of the government as well as various United Nations organisations.

Since the beginning of this month, the conflict between the army and the insurgent group Arakan Army in Rakhine, has escalated. The sound of gunfire can be heard across the border areas of the two countries, from Naikhongchhari in Bandarban to Ukhiya and Teknaf in Cox's Bazar.

According to Prothom Alo's correspondent in Teknaf, intermittent gunfire has been heard from across the border of Shahpari Island and St. Martin’s Union in Teknaf since Friday night until yesterday evening.

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It is reported that a boat entered Shahpari Island Jetty Ghat in Teknaf through the Naf River at around 5:00 pm yesterday. Local sources indicate that there were five Rohingyas aboard the boat, and unfortunately, one of them was shot.

Yesterday evening, Shahpari Island Jetty Ghat was observed to have a crowd of people at the entrance. Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) members are not permitting anyone to enter the area. As of now, no official statement from the BGB has been released regarding the individuals who arrived by boat.

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Task force meeting

The National Task Force on Rohingya issues typically addresses the situation of Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh, policy implementation reviews, and future actions. However, in Wednesday's meeting, given the conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State and its implications for Bangladesh, discussions focused on where to prioritise efforts in the coming days.

According to several officials present, Sumbul Rizvi, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), raised the issue of sheltering around 900 Rohingyas waiting at 19 points along the border of the two countries. She appealed for providing shelter to these Rohingyas on humanitarian grounds.

During the meeting, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen reiterated Bangladesh's inability to accommodate new Rohingya refugees. The government's stance on this matter has been recently reaffirmed by the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The existing Rohingya population has already strained Bangladesh's resources, making it impractical to accept additional refugees at this time.

A senior official, speaking to Prothom Alo, expressed doubts about the possibility of quelling the conflict in Rakhine, given the extensive nature of the ongoing strife and the Arakan Army's persistent advancement into various cities. Consequently, the fate of any new Rohingya arrivals, including the prospects of their return, remains uncertain.

When asked, Mustafa Mohammad Sajjad Hossain, the spokesperson for UNHCR in Bangladesh, told Prothom Alo last night that UNHCR remains committed to collaborating with Bangladesh to ensure the safety and security of individuals seeking refuge from the conflict. They, along with other humanitarian partners, stand prepared to offer necessary assistance to Bangladesh should new Rohingya or other communities arrive.

'Humanitarian Corridor' in talks

During the task force meeting, concerns were raised regarding the United Nations' current level of activity in Rakhine, particularly regarding the involvement of various UN organizations and entities like the International Red Cross in providing humanitarian aid amidst the conflict. Bangladesh expressed apprehension about potential escalation if UN personnel were not present in the conflict zone or if cooperation ceased. However, the United Nations did not provide a clear response during the meeting, although they acknowledged the presence of some international non-governmental aid organizations operating in Rakhine.

Sources from the meeting revealed that the concept of establishing a humanitarian corridor in Rakhine was broached by Bangladesh at one point in the discussion. Organisations such as the International Red Cross are actively engaged in such endeavors, particularly in civil war contexts.

Since the night of 2 February, the insurgent group Arakan Army has been engaged in conflict with the Myanmar army along the border in Rakhine state. On 5 February, a mortar shell fired from across the border at Ghumdhum in Naikhongchhari, Bandarban, resulted in the deaths of two individuals. Among the victims were a Bangladeshi woman and a Rohingya man. Amidst the ongoing conflict, 330 individuals, including members of Myanmar's border guard force, sought refuge in Bangladesh. They were repatriated to Myanmar on the morning of 15 February.

In August 2017, approximately 800,000 Rohingya displaced from Rakhine state due to Myanmar military operations entered Bangladesh through the Teknaf border. Presently, the number of registered Rohingyas in 33 shelter camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf stands at 1.25 million. Not a single Rohingya individual has been repatriated to Myanmar in the last six years.

Former Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain, in response to a query by Prothom Alo, emphasised that Bangladesh has already provided shelter to a significant number of Rohingyas. Therefore, he believes there is no necessity for the UN to offer advice on providing shelter to Rohingyas once again.

Additionally, he pointed out that as long as the civil war persists in Rakhine, Rohingya repatriation remains unlikely. Hence, it is crucial for Bangladesh to prepare for informal engagement with key decision-makers in Rakhine for the future.