The latest estimate of roughly 850,000 Rohingya refugees living currently in Bangladesh is ‘accurate’, not the initial calculation released two years ago that put the figure at nearly 950,000, says Mohammad Shamsu Douza, the government’s additional commissioner of refugee, relief and repatriation.
The official spoke about the problems currently facing the refugees sheltered in Bangladesh and the plans to resolve the crisis in an interview with bdnews24.com.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya had already fled decades of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar to take shelter in Bangladesh before the exodus, the fastest-growing refugee crisis, began in August 2017 following a military crackdown in Rakhine.
Cox’s Bazar, the southeast coastal district, now has the world’s largest refugee camp. The government is trying to meet their urgent needs under emergency response plan with the help of international organisations led by the United Nations.
The Inter Sector Coordination Group, which is coordinating between the international organisations working in the refugee camps, put the Rohingya population there at 957,000 in December 2018.
Since then, about 75,000 children were born in various Rohingya camps.
But the refugee population fell down to 860,000 in July of 2020.
“At first, a large number of Rohingya people arrived together. We did a calculation with our officials. The ISCG tracked the population movement and our passport department conducted a survey. They quoted a number there too,” said Shamsu Douza.
The number is expected to rise, he added. The Rohingya were seen registering three to four times for food aid and other stuff. They might have been in one camp before moving to another.
“There were inconsistencies in the previous data. As a result, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have recently launched a joint verification process. The move has led to the actual information.”
The UNHCR said the difference is less than six percent between the previous estimate of 914,998 and the current figure of 8,60,697. The variance in the numbers is “not too big” considering the relocation of large numbers of refugees worldwide.
The latest figure is based on biometric registration conducted in joint venture with the Bangladesh government until Aug 31, 2020, the UN agency said.
The bigger challenge was to ensure food and shelter for the Rohingya after they started entering the country in massive numbers from Aug 2017 onwards rather than calculating the exact number, Shamsu Douza said.
“In European or other countries of the world, 5-10 people are given shelter at a time and are registered in a proper manner. If the same policy was followed here, these people would have starved to death. There were times when 30-40 thousand people entered the country every day.”
“Our prime minister has given them shelter on compassionate grounds,” he said.
“We can at least proudly say that no one has died of hunger.”
THE PRESENT CHALLENGE
Shamsu Douza had begun working in Cox’s Bazar as the additional commissioner of refugee, relief and repatriation before the exodus began in 2017.
When asked about the present challenges in light of his previous experience, he highlighted law and order.
He noted that Bangladesh has a housing crisis, having been one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The population density is over 1,200 people per square kilometre.
The government, on humanitarian grounds, has allowed the Rohingya to camp on 6,500 acres of land, which is about 27 square kilometres.
“One million people live in that space! There are no multi-storey buildings here. The population density is 30, 0000 to 40,000 per square kilometre in some parts. The number is even higher in some camps,” he said.
“Although the law enforcers are working actively, it’s a big challenge to maintain law and order in such a densely populated area,” he added.
The government has plans to relocate a section of the Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Will it be a challenge?
The Rohingya want to go there, according to Shamsu Douza.
The authorities took 40 refugees to visit the island some days ago and only three to four of them were not in favour of moving in here, he said, citing the in-charge of a camp.
“We have spoken to common Rohingya people about it. They are ready to relocate and have been positive about it.”
Shamsu Douza suggested journalists speak to the Rohingya families separately while reporting about the issue.
He said the Navy has developed the island for housing 100,000 Rohingya.
“There is good accommodation, some livelihood activities and fish farming. There are separate kitchens. More facilities are available in Bhasan Char than in the camps as the arrangements are pre-planned and the space is big.”
The official criticised the human rights organisations for talking about Bhasan Char instead of pressuring Myanmar to take the Rohingya back and hold the killers of the ethnic minority to account.
“We have given the Rohingya shelter. We have provided them with food and these organisations are busy finding fault with us. They have been unable to exert any pressure on those who have killed the Rohingya and are not taking them back,” he fumed.
“Ministers from various countries have also come here. We asked them whether they have been to Myanmar. They told us that they were not allowed to go there,” Shamsu Douza said.
Bangladesh signed an agreement with Myanmar for the repatriation of the refugees by the end of 2017, but the attempts to begin the process have failed twice.
International organisations say that the situation in Rakhine has remained dangerous for the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by Myanmar.
The Rohingya also refused to go back unless their security and basic citizen rights such as medical care and education are ensured by Myanmar.
The first COVID-19 patient in the Rohingya camps was identified two months after Bangladesh reported its first cases. So far, around 11,000 refugees have been tested and about 270 came out positive. More than a hundred have recovered.
While the average identification rate against number of tests in the country is around 20 percent, it is less 2.5 percent in the refugee camps, Shamsu Douza said.
The authorities have set up a 500-bed isolation centre for suspected patients in the camps. The other efforts include the conversion of two transit centres for repatriation into quarantine centres, as well as the conversion of women-friendly spaces and learning centres into quarantine centres.
Now, the locals of Ukhiya are also receiving health care, said Shamsu Douza.
“Since we refer patients to the Cox’s Bazar Medical College Hospital, we have requested the UN agencies to work there. The UNHCR has set up 10 ICU asnd eight HDU beds at Cox’s Bazar General Hospital. UNICEF has arranged oxygen supply,” he said.
Other initiatives have been taken in the densely populated camps by taking into consideration that physical distancing is “impossible” there. Besides, movement has been strictly controlled in the camps except for emergencies.
Although the Rohingya camps have been a real source of employment for the locals, steps need to be taken to develop their technical skills, said Shamsu Douza.
“Ukhiya and Teknaf have always been a bit conservative. It feels good when I see local girls going to work with backpacks on their shoulders,” he said.
Many foreign humanitarian workers have returned to their countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Shamsu Douza thinks the pandemic has little to do with their return.
He holds a positive view of the situation. “We have always demanded that the people of this country gradually take charge of big posts,” he said.
However, it is important to develop the technical skills of the local staff at the field level, Shamsu Douza said. The workers can then take jobs outside the country in such situations in the future, he said.
“We have taken responsibility of one million people. We should have been given work in such scenarios outside the country. I think it’s our right,” he said