Rohingya Refugee Leaders in Bangladesh Call Off Work Strike Early

By Muktadir Rashid   28 November 2018

DHAKA — The leaders of Rohingya refugee camps in the Ukhia region of Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh on Tuesday called off what was to be a three-day strike that started Monday after the government agreed to discuss their demands, including a reference to their ethnicity as Rohingya on ID cards.

“We have decided to pause this strike because we have already been approached by Bangladesh authorities to discuss our demands,” they said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our strike has definitely drawn attention to the issues of Rohingya identity and the lack of consultation with Rohingya refugees by the UNHCR and other authorities in relations to the smart card,” it adds.

The camp leaders say it is crucial that Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar be identified by their ethnicity on the cards the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is issuing them because they are being persecuted in Myanmar specifically because of their ethnicity. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group and refers to them as Bengali, implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh even though many have been living in Myanmar for generations.

The leaders claimed that many of the refugees in Ukhia observed the strike on Monday.

Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam, who visited the camps on Tuesday, confirmed that authorities were in talks with the leaders about their concerns.

Among their other demands, the camp leaders asked that the UNHCR stop pressuring refugees into submitting their biometric data for the cards and to not share the data with Myanmar, fearing the government could misuse it to continue to persecute them.

“UNHCR is aware of reports that members of the refugee community are peacefully voicing their opinions regarding the ongoing joint Government of Bangladesh-UNHCR verification exercise. Refugees are consulted regularly and often express their opinion on matters that impact their lives,” Firas al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

He said the “verification exercise” would help Bangladesh and the UNHCR consolidate uniform data on the refugees to help authorities manage the population, now numbering over 1 million, and to help the refugees access services.

More than 29,000 refugees have registered for the cards since Bangladesh and the UNHCR launched the program in June, according to Bangladeshi authorities. And despite the concerns, refugees were continuing to register on Tuesday.

“The verification exercise is aimed at providing Rohingya refugees with enhanced protection and ensure their access to services in Bangladesh. It is not linked to repatriation. Any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees when they feel conditions are safe for them to do so,” Firas al-Khateeb said.

“Any process associated with voluntary repatriation, including assessments of their willingness to return, should and will be carried out separately from the current verification exercise.”