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Forced relocation of Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh can create tension: ICRC

Ikhtiyar Aslanov

By Nurul Islam Hasib
February 23, 2017

The Head of the Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Dhaka has said that they are against any forced movement of the people who have taken shelter in Cox’s Bazar fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

The government has recently announced its plan to relocate them to Thengar Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal, before repatriation.

“This is new information for us. The foreign ministry informed us during a briefing. For us, ICRC as a humanitarian organisation what is important is that the needs and the safety of the people are respected,” Ikhtiyar Aslanov told

“International norm is that any movement of the people should be voluntary,” he said adding “if you are forced to move, it creates tension, it creates anxiety among the populations because they don’t know where they are going.”

In an exclusive interview to at his office, Aslanov said: “before any such plan, it is important to consider that how are the population affected going to perceive it.” 

More than 400,000 Myanmar nationals, including the newly arrived 69,000, are living mainly in Cox’s Bazar in two registered camps and makeshift settlements after fleeing persecution and communal violence in the Rakhine State.

But, like Bangladesh and the Myanmar government, ICRC does not use the word Rohingya to continue their humanitarian activities smoothly. Instead, they call them Muslim communities of Rakhine.

ICRC activities in Bangladesh in 2O16

Foreign Minster AH Mahmood Ali recently briefing diplomats on the plan said such a huge population in Cox’s Bazaar district has created “formidable challenges” for the authorities to manage humanitarian assistances for them. 

They also created, according to Ali, “some adverse effects on the overall socio-economic, political, demographic, environmental, and humanitarian and security situation in Cox’s Bazar and adjacent districts and also negatively affecting the eco-tourism prospects.” 

Ali had also told diplomats that the government plans “to build necessary infrastructure including shelter, schools, hospitals or health centres, mosques, roads to make the place habitable” and that the relocation would take place “only after the development activities are completed”.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during a recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also called for support of the international community to help relocate them to the remote island until repatriation.

The ICRC Head of the Delegation said they were not questioning the concerns of the Bangladesh government.

“The question is rather how it’s going to be organised. How it is to be presented to them,” Aslanov, who was the deputy of the ICRC’s Syria mission before his Dhaka assignment, said. 

“It’s not about infrastructure and services. How the community is going to be interacting with others. Now they are interacting with the Cox’s Bazaar local community.”

“Putting them completely separated from the mainland - how it’s going to affect their psychology. How will be their safety ensured? How the services will be delivered. Can they do something? What happens when cyclone strikes,” he raised all the questions. 

He, however, said if ICRC has something to say on the relocation issue they will discuss that with the government bilaterally. “As a humanitarian issue, this is also part of our mandate”.

The world’s oldest humanitarian organisation, ICRC plays a crucial humanitarian role during Bangladesh war of independence in 1971.

After five years of operation since 1971 war of independence, ICRC winded its Dhaka office up in 1975 but re-established it in 2006 as it found it necessary mainly to train up Bangladesh peacekeepers who serve in UN missions.

Over the years, it has expanded its activities, and now it is focused on three directions – one of them is prevention work for which it works with the ministry of foreign affairs, home affairs and defence for promoting international humanitarian law.

The second part of its work is focused on protection under which it works closely with the prison authorities.

The third part is the humanitarian response under which it works at the Chittagong Hill Tracts to support livelihood projects for the poor. It provides grants and links them with the local authorities so that they can start work to earn a living.
They also work at Cox’s Bazar under the humanitarian response and support those Myanmar nationals who took shelter for decades.

Together with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, it has been working with healthcare project in Cox’s Bazar since 2O14.

But after the recent influx, they introduced mobile health clinic to reach health services to those Myanmar nationals.

“They are afraid to come to the hospital fearing to be caught there. So, we set up mobile clinics to reach services to them,” the head of the delegation said.

Neutral, impartial

As a guardian of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC works with authorities, armed forces, police, civil society and media to promote awareness of International Humanitarian Law, IHL, and humanitarian values, and their integration into domestic legislation, civil and military education and training.

The Head of the Delegation in Dhaka said they would have to be “neutral and impartial” to carry out their humanitarian activities.

“We can work in a complex situation. We have to understand the complicated things to maintain neutrality,” he said while explaining their activities.

“How to remain neutral, how to be impartial is the exactly part that comes strongly in our discussion, debates and internal analysis. It depends from station to station how it is accepted.”

“In general, the principle never changes. The principle of being neutral and impartial remains the same,” he said.

He said, “It is often difficult to accept neutrality when two parties fight – the emotion and feeling are that you are helping the other side”.

“But we try to make the decision-makers realise that the situation can be another way around. They can be on the other side,” he said, adding that for ICRC neutrality does not mean “passive role”.

“…in our work, it is far from passive. It’s quite active,” he said.

“Neutrality is something you have to work on it constantly. Neutrality is something we have to disseminate and explain particularly at the moment when the emotions, feelings and sometimes accusations are so high; it’s very difficult to cut through the obstacles to talking about neutrality”.

“It’s a tough job,” he said.

He said ICRC works in 100 countries that do not mean that all the countries have the crisis. Some have protracted crisis, some have an actual crisis, some have lived through the crisis and now time for reshaping.

“We continue promotion of international humanitarian law,” he said.

In Bangladesh, he said, since it is a “peaceful” country, their work is focused on promoting international humanitarian law.

The ICRC also supports the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, CRP, in Bangladesh. It also organised the first-ever international cricket tournament for the people with disabilities in 2015.

In May, this year, it will also hold a seminar with the prison authorities of 15 South-east Asian countries.

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