Merkley, Rubio Lead Push to Improve Humanitarian Access and Living Conditions for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Merkley, Rubio Lead Push to Improve Humanitarian Access and Living Conditions for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and FU.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are leading a bipartisan effort to increase humanitarian access and improve living conditions for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. More than 900,000 Rohingya are currently taking refuge in Bangladesh following a brutal campaign of genocide that the Burmese military have perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

Merkley and Rubio were joined by U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Chris Coons (D-DE), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

“We understand from discussions with numerous stakeholders that limitations on the movements of humanitarian workers and Rohingya volunteers have impeded the delivery of important social services in Cox’s Bazar,” the senators wrote in a letter to Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, the Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs. “While we acknowledge the need for caution and some restrictions due to the COVID pandemic and we understand that Bangladesh has recently relaxed some of those restrictions, we want to stress that it remains critical that humanitarian actors and Rohingya volunteers have ongoing access to the camps to ensure that refugees continue to receive basic social services and protections.”

“We are also concerned with limitations on some programming, including educational and livelihood opportunities,” a “We welcome the Government's steps toward providing Rohingya children with an education in the camps, a sacrosanct right per the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. We urge you to work with UNICEF to revive and expand the pilot of the Myanmar curriculum across all ages and grades to enable UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs, funded by international donors, to provide Rohingya children with formal, accredited education in the camps.”

The senators also expressed concern and alarm over reports that refugees have been forcibly relocated to Bhasan Char—an island encampment built to house Rohingya refugees—and have been prohibited from leaving and, in some cases, forcibly returned to Bhasan Char after escaping. The senators urged Bangladesh to allow freedom of movement for refugees; to allow independent monitoring of the relocation process to ensure it is truly voluntary; and to allow the United Nations to conduct a technical assessment of the flood-prone island’s habitability. The senators noted that the United States—the largest international donor to the refugee resettlement process in Bangladesh—has prohibited the use of any American funds to support forced relocations to Bhasan Char.

The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.

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Dear Minister Momen,

We are grateful to the people and Government of Bangladesh for providing more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees with relative safety, security, and sustenance after fleeing horrific violence in Burma. The Government of Bangladesh – with support from international donors led by the United States, humanitarian agencies, and Rohingya and Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar – has admirably managed many aspects of the crisis, including limiting the spread of infectious disease and minimizing loss of life to natural disasters. We welcome especially your efforts to vaccinate over 35,000 Rohingya against COVID-19. Without taking away from these laudable efforts, we write to you to discuss concerns about humanitarian access, education and livelihood opportunities, and relocations to Bhasan Char.

We understand from discussions with numerous stakeholders that limitations on the movements of humanitarian workers and Rohingya volunteers have impeded the delivery of important social services in Cox’s Bazar. While we acknowledge the need for caution and some restrictions due to the COVID pandemic and we understand that Bangladesh has recently relaxed some of those restrictions, we want to stress that it remains critical that humanitarian actors and Rohingya volunteers have ongoing access to the camps to ensure that refugees continue to receive basic social services and protections. We are particularly concerned about the protection environment given the broader feelings of insecurity that refugees, especially women, are expressing as a result of criminal and militant groups operating in the camps and recent fires. We also note with great sadness the murder of Mohib Ullah in Cox’s Bazar and urge the government to work in a transparent manner to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice as well as to redouble efforts to ensure that criminal groups are not able to operate with impunity in the camps. More broadly, we call upon the Government of Bangladesh to allow consistent, unimpeded access to the camps for humanitarian actors and volunteers and a full resumption of protection activities.

We are also concerned with limitations on some programming, including educational and livelihood opportunities. We welcome the Government's steps toward providing Rohingya children with an education in the camps, a sacrosanct right per the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. We urge you to work with UNICEF to revive and expand the pilot of the Myanmar curriculum across all ages and grades to enable UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs, funded by international donors, to provide Rohingya children with formal, accredited education in the camps. We are supportive of the broad education goals identified in the 2021 Joint Response Plan, and ask you to work in partnership with the UN, donors, and NGOs to offer improved, accredited education to Rohingya youth.

In the face of these challenges, we understand that Rohingya frustration is increasing. We note the Government of Bangladesh’s significant investments to develop Bhasan Char and welcome the recent announcement that your government has concluded a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is imperative that your government take all steps to implement this MOU, including provisions allowing for freedom of movement for Rohingya Refugees on Bhasan Char. Nonetheless, we are troubled by recent reports that some Rohingya that have attempted to escape from Bhasan Char were detained and returned to the island, and that others were relocated to Bhasan Char against their will, which would go against your Government’s stated commitments to a voluntary process in which refugees are able to give fully informed consent. We urge the Government to demonstrate its commitments to voluntary and fully informed relocations by allowing Rohingya to return to the mainland if they so choose while also allowing independent monitoring of the relocation process. We encourage you to allow the UN to conduct a comprehensive technical assessment of Bhasan Char’s habitability.  We do not support the forced relocation of Rohingya to Bhasan Char and have prohibited the use of funds to support such a policy.

Until Rohingya can safely return home, Bangladesh will unfortunately carry an outsized responsibility to ensure their protection. As elected officials in the United States, we are prepared to do our part to help Bangladesh attain sufficient international support and resources to help both Rohingya and affected Bangladeshi communities in Cox’s Bazar; encouraging meaningful consideration of third country resettlement options; holding Burma accountable for addressing the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine and for atrocities committed against the Rohingya; and continuing to urge the international community, including our own country, to respond strongly to the coup in Burma.

We extend our deepest gratitude for everything Bangladesh has done for the Rohingya since 2017 and, indeed, since the 1970s. As elected representatives of the United States, the largest donor to the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar, we look forward to continuing to work with you to find durable solutions to this crisis.