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UNHCR honoured by Bangladesh for helping millions in 1971 conflict

Making a Difference, 27 March 2012

© UNHCR/J.Song
UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh Craig Sanders holds a plaque in one hand as he receives a certificate from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka today.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, March 27 (UNHCR) The government of Bangladesh on Tuesday honoured the UN refugee agency for providing life-saving aid to some 10 million refugees during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

At a ceremony in Dhaka attended by President Zillur Rahman, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other dignitaries, UNHCR was among several international organizations and dozens of individuals named as "friends" of Bangladesh during the 1971 independence conflict.

"UNHCR appreciates the recognition," said Craig Sanders, UNHCR's Representative in Bangladesh, who received a certificate and a plaque. "It's been a strong partnership between UNHCR and the government of Bangladesh over the years, and we look forward to continue working closely."

In late March 1971, the former East Pakistan declared independence from West Pakistan. During the ensuing violence and repression, some 10 million civilians fled into neighbouring India and a massive relief operation was launched.

UNHCR was, for the first time in a humanitarian crisis, chosen to act as general coordinator for all UN assistance. As "focal point," the refugee agency's tasks included mobilization of international support and funds, procurement and delivery of relief supplies to India, and coordination with the Indian government, which organized the distribution of these supplies. It was a pivotal moment in UNHCR's history.

Meghna Guhathakurta was among the millions displaced in 1971, when she was 15, and says the experience made her want to help refugees. Her father died of gunshot wounds and she and her mother had to hide during the following nine months.

Today she heads Research Initiatives Bangladesh, an implementing partner for UNHCR in Cox's Bazar, where some 30,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar live in two camps. "I feel I understand what they want. They just want to be able to do ordinary things as other ordinary people do, going to school or cultivating their lands," Meghna said.

There are an additional 200,000 unregistered persons of concern from Myanmar in Bangladesh. UNHCR also advocates for these people.

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Statelessness in Bangladesh: The Biharis

Some 240,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis spent decades living in appalling conditions in squalid settlements in Bangladesh. They were not recognized as citizens and had little hope of a normal life.

The plight of the Biharis, whose ancestors moved to Bangladesh from India following the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, stems from the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. While many Bihari Urdu speakers subsequently relocated to Pakistan, up to 300,000 remained in Bangladesh. For many years, their legal rights as citizens were not recognized. Many lived in camps and open settlements and were, as a consequence, often denied access to education and had difficulty finding work.

In 2008, the High Court in Dhaka ruled that the Urdu speakers were nationals of Bangladesh. The government registered the adults as voters in time for the December 2008 general election and issued them with national ID cards.Today they remain a linguistic minority in need of better housing and employment opportunities.

There are an estimated 12 million stateless people in the world. Many are effectively trapped in legal limbo, often with limited enjoyment of human rights.

Statelessness in Bangladesh: The Biharis

Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

Returnees in Myanmar

Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

In 1991, some 250,000 refugees from Myanmar's Northern Rakhine state fled by boat and on foot to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they were sheltered in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazar district. While the majority of these refugees eventually returned home, some 20,500 people – mostly Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group – remain in two of the original camps.

Conditions in these camps are below standard, with many refugees living in overcrowded shelters in desperate need of repair. Frequent heavy rains inundate the area, further damaging shelters and spreading disease. Harassment and discrimination add to the plight of the Rohingya refugees, the majority of whom say that they do not want to return home until there is peace and democracy in Myanmar.

The UNHCR has expanded its routine protection monitoring in Cox's Bazar to address the problems of sexual and gender-based violence as well as trafficking of women and children. The UN refugee agency continues to work with governments, other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations to try and find a durable solution for the Rohingya refugees.

Posted on 27 November 2006

Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

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