Speculation over Rohingya repatriation not helpful: UNHCR

Rohingya women with an anxious look are seen waiting for relief at a camp in Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.

By Editor UNB
DHAKA, Bangladesh, Nov 26 2018 (IPS/UNB United News of Bangladesh)

Amid uncertainties over commencement of planned repatriation of verified Rohingyas any time soon, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says the key to any lasting solution lies in Myanmar.

“It is important that the opinion of the refugees (Rohingyas) was taken into consideration,” said UNHCR’s senior spokesman Chris Melzer, discoursing any speculation of what he sees as unhelpful.

There were questions over ability of the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to work together in a workable fashion to resolve the Rohingya crisis, after the ‘planned’ repatriation of some 2,260 individuals comprising 485 family units, failed to get off the ground.

When attention was drawn in this regard, the UNHCR spokesman said many Rohingyas would like to return but they do not feel that the situation has changed in Myanmar that would give them confidence about the future if they were to return.

“They still have concerns about their safety, their legal status, and their right to exercise basic freedoms,” said Melzer.

The Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar are the victims of human rights violations committed in the midst of the violence that erupted in August 2017 forcing over 800,000 Rohingya people to take shelter in Bangladesh.

These Rohingya people have been living in camps administered by UNHCR and the government of Bangladesh with support from a slew of UN agencies and international NGOs since August 2017.

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque, on several occasions, made it clear that Rohingyas need to decide on their own if they want to return to Myanmar.

Rohingya people including children are seen waiting for relief at a camp in Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.

He pointed out that it is not Bangladesh’s decision. “It is not Myanmar’s decision and it is not UNHCR’s decision. The return is a decision that must be taken by Rohingyas.”

Asked whether the likelihood of repatriation is slim to none in next six months, the UNHCR spokesman said such speculation is not helpful.

“The authorities there need to take tangible steps to address the root causes of displacement,” Melzer said adding that UNHCR remains committed to supporting efforts by the government of Myanmar towards creating conditions for returns, in line with the terms of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding it signed with UNDP and the Myanmar authorities.

In the meantime, the UNHCR official said, they are very thankful for the Bangladesh government which has shown remarkable hospitality. “We know from our discussions with refugees how grateful they are.”

Responding to another question, Melzer said any returns have to be undertaken in line with international standards of voluntariness, and in dignity and safety.

“All refugees have the right to return and equally, they have to decide for themselves when they believe the conditions are conducive for return,” he said.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called on Myanmar to allow refugees to go to see the conditions in Rakhine State for themselves, so they can make an independent assessment of whether they feel the conditions are conducive for return in safety and dignity.

Asked why the repatriation plan did fail on November 15, the official said nobody wants to flee their home and when people are forced to flee, there are strong reasons.

Rohingya people stage demonstrations with placards inscribed with slogans like ‘We Want Justice’. Photo was taken on November 15, 2018 from Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar district.

“As long as these reasons still exist and the reasons that led to their displacement have not been addressed, people will be reluctant to return home unless they feel the situation on the ground has changed,” he said.

Talking about international communities roles, UNHCR said Rohingyas in Bangladesh will continue to need support for as long as they are displaced.

“They rely on the international community for all their basic needs. This is not something Bangladesh should shoulder responsibility for on its own,” he said.

UNHCR has consistently called on the international community to show global solidarity with the authorities in Bangladesh in supporting the Rohingya.

“This is in line with the Global Compact on Refugees that UNHCR has been working for , and we hope will be signed by the UN General Assembly before the end of the year. There must be shared international responsibilities,” Melzer said.

Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations Ambassador Masud Bin Momen has urged all Member States to support for sharing their responsibility for the Rohingya.

He said Bangladesh, as a responsible State, will do everything in line with the established norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

A diplomatic source said some, within the international community, are trying to give an impression that Bangladesh has taken it as a “business venture” and Bangladesh does not want the repatriation of Rohingyas.

In Bangladesh, however, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has always insisted that the Rohingya would return only if they wanted to.

“There is no gain to be made for Bangladesh by either holding back the Rohingya or forcing their return,” said Ambassador Momen at the third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the United Nations General Assembly on November 16.

Bangladesh also urged all concerned to refrain from either of these narratives, and take a step back from the condescending approach they tend to take when it comes to reminding us of what is the right thing to do.

The third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a draft resolution on November 16 that condemn all rights violations in Myanmar and called for an independent investigation into them, including against Rohingya Muslims, to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.

The Committee’s approval was similarly marked by intense debate, with Myanmar’s delegate “totally” rejecting the text as procedurally unwarranted and “hopelessly unconstructive” in its attempt to exert pressure on a soft target. It was passed by a recorded vote of 142 in favour to 10 against – China, Russia, Myanmar, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe – with 26 abstentions.

The Assembly would advocate international support for the underfunded 2018 joint response plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.

Bangladesh needs strong support from China to resolve the Rohingya crisis. However, China thinks the United Nations and the international community should remain patient rather than complicating the situation, noting that they stands ready to support Bangladesh-Myanmar’s endeavor as these two countries had agreed to start a repatriation process.

When Bangladesh and Myanmar were set to begin the first batch of Rohingya repatriation on November 15, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in a statement instantly, urged the government of Bangladesh to halt plans for the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar.

She, at the same time, called on the government of Myanmar to show its seriousness in creating the conditions for return by addressing the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine state, in particular the systematic discrimination against and persecution of Rohingya.

Sufi Shrines: Public-private Partnership to Improve Food Security and Nutrition

The sufi shrines, which are scattered around Pakistan, feed large numbers of people on a regular basis. One of the largest and most important of these shrines of that of Lal Shabaz Qalandar in the province of Sindh – not far from Karachi, the country’s main port, financial center and largest city – where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit every year.

The sufi shrines, which are scattered around the country, feed large numbers of people on a regular basis. Credit: Daud Khan

By Ahmed Raza and Daud Khan
ROME, Nov 26 2018 (IPS)

The new government in Pakistan has now been in office for over 100 days and has started work on its reform and socio-economic agenda. There is a growing realization that being in government is far more difficult than it first appeared, and that in order to move forward there is an urgent need to build national and international partnerships.

Of the challenges facing the country, food insecurity and malnutrition are high on government’s priority as was evident from the Prime Minister’s inaugural speech. The focus on food security and nutrition is warranted. Nearly half of children under the age of five in the country are suffering from stunted growth, which implies that they will most likely not reach their full physical and mental potential. In addition, approximately 60 percent of the population is vulnerable to food insecurity.

Given the scale of the food insecurity and malnutrition problem in the country, government and donor assisted schemes will not be sufficient and there is a need to look for innovative and low cost mechanisms that would strengthen partnerships with private initiatives. One such partnership could be with the Sufi shrines in Pakistan

Past governments and donor agencies have been making strong efforts to address food insecurity and malnutrition. The United Nations’ agencies,  in particular the World Food Programme, has been working on the malnutrition problem by providing supplements to children, pregnant and lactating women, in addition to leading a wheat and oil fortification programme.

The government, on the other hand, has focused on augmenting incomes of the poorest households and providing affordable flour and bread.  The Benazir Income Support Programme provides cash support to poor families with the aim of meeting basic needs; the Sasti Roti programme provided inexpensive bread to urban dwellers; and the government continues a long standing subsidy, albeit a rather inefficient one, to flour mills to supply affordable wheat flour to the public – a programme that could be replaced by allowing imports of cheaper foreign wheat.

However, given the scale of the food insecurity and malnutrition problem in the country, government and donor assisted schemes will not be sufficient and there is a need to look for innovative and low cost mechanisms that would strengthen partnerships with private initiatives. One such partnership could be with the Sufi shrines in Pakistan.

The sufi shrines, which are scattered around the country, feed large numbers of people on a regular basis. One of the largest and most important of these shrines of that of Lal Shabaz Qalandar in the province of Sindh – not far from Karachi, the country’s main port, financial center and largest city – where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit every year.

At Sehwan Sharif, there are a number of charity-funded kitchens where food is prepared for free distribution.  At one of the bigger kitchens, about 1,600 kgs of flour is baked into bread every day – enough to feed 5,000 people.

Charitable activities are an integral part of Pakistani culture and take many forms. For example, ordinary families routinely pay for food, as well as school fees and medical expenses for employees, helpers and poorer relatives. Many hotels and restaurants will distribute leftover food to the poor; a number of industrial units, more commonly the larger and more organized ones, will provide a free lunch to their workers; and successful business houses will set up charitable foundations.

The amount of help provided increases during times of national emergency and crisis.  After the 2005 earthquake which killed over 80,000 people and the floods in 2010 which caused damages of around US$10 billion, a large part of the relief effort was taken on by ordinary citizens on an individual or collective basis.  They provided money, clothing, food and medicines while skilled professionals such as doctor and engineers travelled to affected areas to help.

Inter country studies confirm the importance of charity in Pakistan.  In a review done by the Charities Aid Foundation (the World Giving Index 2017) with the help of Gallup, Pakistan stands 78 out of 137 countries in the global ranking of countries by how much they give to charity. While this is a respectable ranking, a more detailed look at the statistics shows that some 41 million Pakistanis donated money for charity (5th largest number among all countries) and 61 million helped a person they did not know directly (7th largest number in the world).

There is a lot that the government can do to improve the impact of these charitable works.  In the case of the free kitchens at the Sufi shrines there a couple of very quick and simple things that would improve impact:

  • Hygiene and food safety.  The nutritional benefits of the food provided are severely diminished due to contamination by bacteria and parasites at all stages of storage, preparation and serving. The cloths used to cover the food are often filthy; plates and other utensils are poorly washed; there are a large number of flies and other insects that deposit contamination; and often rats, mice and cockroaches infest the areas where food is stored.  Simple training and awareness-raising are low cost methods to address this. Local officials, or university or high school students, should be drawn upon to help.
  • Food Fortification.  In Pakistan various micronutrient deficiencies are highly prevalent and cause problems such as anemia, especially among women. Fortifying wheat and other foods served at the shrines is a very low cost way to raise levels of nutrition. Additives could be provided through local public health staff or by involving local doctors and pharmacies.

As in the case of food, better government guidance and oversight would considerably improve the impact of private initiatives in many other areas.  For example, following natural disasters, providing guidelines on what is needed by impacted populations would improve effectiveness; providing psychiatrists and psychologists to charitable institutions providing homes to the mentally ill or to orphans; and helping build providing specialized teacher training to working with handicapped children.

The Government has access to top quality expertise and international best practices – it should use to leverage the work of others rather than trying to do much itself.

 

Ahmed Raza Gorsi works in international development specializing in food, agriculture and nutrition. Views expressed here are his own.

Daud Khan has more than 30 years of experience on global food security and rural development issues. Until recently, he was a staff member at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He has degrees in economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology.