Japanese envoy sees opportunity to do more for Rohingyas on the island
Despite challenges, Rohingyas moved to Bhasan Char can benefit from greater investment of resources that create livelihood opportunities for them on the island - that is the view of Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh Naoki Ito, upon his return from a recent visit to the reclaimed island in the Bay of Bengal, where he got to witness its development first-hand, including what he called "some solid facilities and infrastructure."
"It's true that they (Rohingyas) are enjoying a better safety and security environment. They're living in more solid, concrete buildings. So that's absolutely a positive aspect of their lives," Ambassador Ito said, in an interview with our sister newsagency UNB where he shared the experiences from his recent visit.
He was keen to note that there should be investment of more resources "through joint efforts" on the island, indicating the international community involved in the Rohingya refugee crisis response, in order to create livelihood opportunities on the island.
The ambassador said the government of Bangladesh and the international community need to come forward with more resources and the private sector including Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) can be involved to create more livelihood opportunities, education and skills for the Rohingyas - so that "frustration" does not grow among them which might lead to instability.
Rohingyas are Myanmar nationals and Bangladesh has been hosting them on a temporary basis purely out of humanitarian gesture, Bangladesh says.
Any arrangement in Bangladesh for Rohingyas is solely "temporary" in nature, said a government official, noting that the Rohingyas want to return to their homeland - Myanmar's Rakhine State - and all need to work constructively to that end.
The government of Bangladesh made it clear that it cannot integrate the Rohingyas and cannot find any permanent solution within Bangladesh, and so their sustainable repatriation is seen as the only solution.
Asked whether providing more livelihood opportunities will send a signal to Myanmar that the Rohingyas are being settled in Bangladesh, Naoki Ito said, "No, I don't think so."
He said the Rohingyas living in Bhasan Char want to go back and repatriation is their goal. "They want justice. Even after almost five years, they're still really looking at their homeland. It's clear they want to go back."
So as long as they have that determination for repatriation, no wrong signal can be sent to Myanmar, said the ambassador.
He said education, skills and livelihood opportunities are essential things before they go back to Myanmar as it seems, given the situation in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are going to stay here for "some more years."
"You decided to open up the border. You decided to provide humanitarian support and protection. So now we're in the next stage. That's to equip them with better education, better skills, better livelihood opportunities, I think these are the steps we should take even to facilitate the process of repatriation. That's my view," said the ambassador.
Asked about the possibility of repatriation during the military regime, the Japanese envoy said, "We should not rule out the possibility."
The military seized control on 1 February 2021 following a general election which Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party won by a landslide.
Bangladesh has said the international community must not shy away from their responsibility to resolve the Rohingya crisis and relieve Bangladesh from the burden as Myanmar authorities are yet to demonstrate genuine political will to resolve the crisis.
"The question that repeatedly strikes our minds is how long we would have to bear the burden and how the international community sustains this level of humanitarian support for such a big number of over 1.1 million population with around 30,000 newborns being added each year," said State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md. Shahriar Alam during the virtual launching ceremony of the Joint Response Plan-2022 (JRP-2022) a couple of weeks ago.
He said the displaced people are not expected to opt for return on their own unless a conducive environment in Rakhine is created and confidence building among the Rohingya is done.
More Japanese Funding
The Japanese envoy said they will continue to consider the possibility of further funding to the Rohingya projects both in Cox's Bazar and Bhasan Char as they are thinking how they can respond to the Joint Response Plan (JRP-2022) which came up last month in Geneva.
This time when the envoy went to the Bhasan Char Island, he was there with a team from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) office in Dhaka.
"So I think JICA will explore the possibility of providing their cooperation. We don't know how soon, we don't know what sort of scale of project they might be able to come up with. But at least they're in a position to consider the possibility," he said.
In January 2022, Japan funded as the first donor, US $2 million to UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) to support their operations on Bhasan Char.
"I observe that the funding we provided has been effectively utilized for the benefit of the refugee population on the island," said the ambassador.
Asked about burden sharing, he acknowledged that no single country so far has said that they are ready to take Rohingyas in large scale, for example, 10,000 Rohingyas together.
The government is a little bit reluctant about the smallest scale third country resettlement. Recently, family members (11) of Rohingya leader Mohib Ullah, who was shot dead by miscreants, have left Bangladesh for Canada.
The ambassador who stayed overnight at a privately run hotel in Bhasan Char, said they are lucky to be the first guests to stay at the hotel. "I found the hotel quite pleasant."
Ambassador Naoki expressed his appreciation for the dedicated work of UN agencies, NGOs, the Navy, and the government of Bangladesh for delivering services to the refugees despite financial and resource constraints.
"It was truly eye-opening to see the humanitarian responses and efforts of UNHCR, WFP and NGOs such as Brac, Friendship, GK, Islamic Relief, BDRCS, Qatar Charity, and CODEC. The government of Bangladesh has established solid facilities and infrastructure," Ambassador Naoki said.
What Kind of Opportunities?
Talking about the livelihood opportunities in Bhasan Char, the envoy said there are some efforts but these are not the kind of opportunities the Rohingyas were expecting before they went to the island.
"So clearly, we really need to step up the level of services, quality of interventions on the island, health, education, and livelihood opportunities. I think these are the things we really need to work on," he said.
For that, Ambassador Naoki said, there are some avenues they need to push forward and explore. One is, of course, to provide more funding to the UN activities while the international community including multilateral agencies should work together.
Secondly, he said, the government needs to provide more resources and needs to take a more systematic approach for the needs on the island.
The cooperation and collaboration between the UN and government is absolutely necessary which is going on well, Ambassador Naoki said. "But we really need to even promote further cooperation and collaboration between the UN agencies and the government."
The envoy said the Bhasan Char project needs to be maintained well and also transportation needs to be taken care of. "I think more resources need to be put in by the government as well, for example Health, Education and Disaster Management and Relief Ministries might look at the situation."
Explaining further about the livelihood opportunities, he said that has to be different from what people enjoy in Cox's Bazar camps.
He thinks there are two ways of doing this - there are not many host community people in Bhasan Char and it is not like a host community in Cox's Bazar area. "So that means refugees themselves really need to run the community. I think we all need to be more creative so that we can run the system with the involvement of the Rohingya population."
The second aspect is to replicate something like a jute bag production center in Bhasan Char which is a very successful example of engaging the Rohingya women in Cox's Bazar camp.
"I'm of the view that we should replicate more such initiative first inside the Cox's Bazar camps and also inside Bhasan Char Island and those products can be sold outside," Naoki said, adding that he learned that BGMEA was asked by the government to set up some facilities on the island and they should be successful.
The ambassador said they do not know how many years the Rohingyas are going to be there and at the moment, nobody can say that the repatriation will start tomorrow. "We can't afford to make them a "destabilizing factor" of the region."
"The government laid the groundwork. And now I think a framework of cooperation and a framework of humanitarian response is being put in place. That's a very positive step forward," he said, noting that the system of relocation has been in good shape which is another positive aspect.
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