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Transfer of Rohingya refugees to Bay of Bengal island ‘must be voluntary’

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The head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), has voiced concerns over the reported relocation of some Rohingya refugees by Bangladeshi authorities, to an island off the country’s coast, in the Bay of Bengal. 

“Any transfer must follow a voluntary, informed decision”, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Twitter on Sunday. 

According to media reports, about 1,600 Rohingya refugees have moved from camps in Cox’s Bazar to the Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal, a low-lying island said to be vulnerable to cyclones and flooding. 

UNHCR and UN partners seek access to them in order to hear their voices, understand their wishes and see conditions on the island”, added Mr. Grandi. 

Nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees live in the Cox’s Bazar settlements.  

Technical protection assessments 

Last week, the UN office in Bangladesh said that it has not been involved in preparations for the movement of refugees to Bhasan Char, or in selecting or deciding which families would be moving. 

In a statement, the office stressed that “any relocations to Bhasan Char should be preceded by comprehensive technical protection assessments.” 

The independent UN assessments would review the safety, feasibility and sustainability of Bhasan Char as a place for refugees to live, as well as the framework for protection and the assistance and services they would be able to access on the island. 

“Since the Government announced the Bhasan Char project, the UN has offered to engage in constructive consultations aimed at better understanding the plan and considering with the Government the most critical policy, process and operational issues. [We] remain willing to continue this dialogue”, the statement added. 

A complex refugee crisis 

The complex Rohingya refugee crisis erupted in August 2017, following attacks on remote police outposts in western Myanmar by armed groups alleged to belong to the community. These were followed by systematic counter attacks against the minority, mainly Muslim, Rohingya, which human rights groups, including senior UN officials, have said amounted to ethnic cleansing.   

In the weeks that followed, over 700,000 Rohingya – the majority of them children, women and the elderly – fled their homes for safety in Bangladesh, with little more than the clothes on their backs.   

Prior to the mass exodus, well over 200,000 Rohingya refugees were sheltering in Bangladesh as a result of earlier displacements from Myanmar. 

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Human Rights

UNRWA condemns demolition of Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

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The Salhiyya family's personal belongings after the demolition of their home in East Jerusalem. © UNRWA

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Thursday urged Israeli to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day.  

Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent houses, according to news reports, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem early on Wednesday, and later tore down the structures – a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office has condemned. 

Staff who visited the scene on Thursday morning observed the total destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. 

Against international law 

“Under international humanitarian law, the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where such measures would be rendered absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation,” the agency said. 

The 15-member Salhiyya family, who include an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, according to UNRWA.   

The neigbourhood and tensions surrounding evictions, and attempted evictions, was at the heart of brutal fighting that erupted last year in Gaza, between Israel and the militant group, Hamas. 

Arrests and injuries 

Israeli forces raided the two Salhiyya houses on the property, at 3am on Wednesday, while the family was sleeping.   

In a matter of hours the homes, as well as their possessions, were destroyed, UNRWA said, adding that Israeli forces injured several family members during the eviction operations. 

The head of the family, Mahmoud Salhiyya, along with other relatives, was also arrested.  Mr. Salhiyya had threatened to set himself on fire two days ago after Israeli forces demolished his business, located next door. 

Other families at risk 

UNRWA stated that sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique as scores of Palestine refugee families in different areas of Sheikh Jarrah alone – over 200 persons, many of them children – currently face imminent threat of eviction.  

Across East Jerusalem, an estimated 218 Palestinian households are at risk of displacement by the Israeli authorities, the agency said, citing 2020 data from the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA

These households comprise some 970 people, including 424 children. 

UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to abide by international law and, as the occupying power, to ensure the protection of Palestine refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  

“All individuals have a right to safe and secure housing and to live in peace and dignity,” said the agency. 

Agencies call for release of seriously ill child 

In another development in the region, UNRWA and two other UN agencies are calling for the immediate release of a seriously ill Palestinian child detained in Israel. 

Amal Nakhleh, now 18, has been held without charge for more than a year, a measure known as administrative detention.  He has a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to media reports. 

Israel has extended his detention until 18 May, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNRWA, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR

“Neither Amal nor his lawyers or family have been informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention. Amal suffers from a severe autoimmune disease that requires continuous medical treatment and monitoring,” they said. 

Not an isolated case 

The UN agencies called for his “immediate and unconditional release”, in line with international human rights law. 

This is not an isolated case, they added, as currently at least three Palestinians are in administrative detention who were under age 18 when they were first detained. 

“We echo the calls of the UN Secretary-General who in his Report on Children and Armed Conflict has, every year since 2015, urges Israel to end the administrative detention of children. This practice deprives children of their liberty and must immediately end.” 

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Human Rights

UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

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A young girl takes part in UNRWA's Keeping Kids Cool summer activities in Gaza. © UNRWA 2021/Mohamed Hinnawi

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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55 journalists killed in 2021, impunity ‘alarmingly widespread’

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Journalists covering a terrorist attack in Kenya. ©UNESCO/ Enos Teche

Fifty-five journalists and media professionals were killed last year, latest UN data showed on Thursday, with nearly nine in 10 killings since 2006 still unresolved. 

Impunity is “alarmingly widespread”, said the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

“Once again in 2021, far too many journalists paid the ultimate price to bring truth to light”, said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.  

“Right now, the world needs independent, factual information more than ever. We must do more to ensure that those who work tirelessly to provide this can do so without fear.” 

Although the number of victims stands at its lowest for a decade, UNESCO underlined the many dangers that reporters face in trying to cover stories and expose wrongdoing.  

In 2021, as in previous years, journalists faced high rates of imprisonment, physical attack, intimidation and harassment, including when reporting on protests. 

No distinction 

Women journalists continue to be particularly at risk as they are subjected to “a shocking prevalence of harassment online”, UNESCO said, citing data which showed that nearly three-quarters of female media professionals surveyed had experienced online violence linked to their work. 

According to the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists, two-thirds of victims in 2021 died in countries where there is no armed conflict.  

This marks a complete reversal of the situation in 2013, when two-thirds of killings took place in countries experiencing conflict. 

Regional dangers  

Most deaths in 2021 occurred in just two regions, Asia-Pacific – with 23 killings, and Latin America and the Caribbean – with 14. 

On Wednesday, Ms. Azoulay condemned the killing of Myanmar journalist Sai Win Aung. 

Mr. Aung – also known as A Sai K – died on 25 December while covering the plight of refugees in the southeastern state of Kayin. 

During his assignment for the Federal News Journal, he was shot in an artillery attack by the Myanmar armed forces, UNESCO said citing reports, making him the second journalist to be killed in Myanmar last month. 

Bold platform  

UNESCO has a global mandate to ensure freedom of expression and the safety of journalists worldwide.  

Every time a journalist or media professional is killed, the agency systematically urges authorities to conduct a full investigation. 

The agency also coordinates the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which marks its 10-year anniversary in 2022.  

UNESCO also provides training for journalists and judicial actors, works with Governments to develop supportive policies and laws and raises global awareness through events such as World Press Freedom Day, commemorated annually on 3 May. 

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