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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 247
July 22, 2006

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Law interview

Interview with Ms. Pia Prytz Phiri, UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh

"History of the liberation war will help the Bangladeshi
people to realise the plight of the refugees"

Sultana Razia

June 20 was observed as the World Refugee Day. On that occasion Ms. Pia Prytz Phiri, Representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh spoke to Sultana Razia of The Daily Star. Ms. Phiri who has a 22-year career with UNHCR joined as the Representative in Bangladesh in February 2006. The excerpts of the discussion are produced below:

Sultana Razia (SR): What do you think about the possibility of acceding to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees by our government and what role can UNHCR play in this regard?
Pia Prytz Phiri (PPP): During the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, about 10 million Bangladeshis took refuge in neighbouring India. They returned after the independence struggle which took nine months. At the end of 2005, there were a total of 8.4 million refugees worldwide which is lesser than the number of Bangladeshi refugees who fled in 1971. So, the people of Bangladesh have first hand experience of being refugees themselves and hopefully the history of the Liberation War will help the Bangladeshi people to realise the plight of the refugees many of whom have been living in limbo for more than 10 years. These personal experiences will be invaluable in advocating for refugee rights in Bangladesh and promoting accession to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and adoption of national legislation on refugees. Of course, it is within UNHCR's mandate to lobby with the Government and we have been working on that and I am hopeful that Bangladesh will accede to the Convention and its Protocol.

Ms. Pia Prytz Phiri, Representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh

Further, Bangladesh is a member of the UNHCR's Executive Committee which provides guidance to UNHCR on how to engage in refugee issues worldwide. Thus one hopes that this imposes some accountability and respect towards implementation of at least the spirit of the 1951 Convention domestically. In Bangladesh, UNHCR works and engages with the Government. We also advocate refugee issues with academics, the Bar Council and civil society organisations. I have much hope that efforts from civil society and the Bangladeshi people will persuade the Government to accede to the 1951 Convention which will provide minimum standards for the treatment and protection of refugees and become part of the family of some 146 States who have done so. Of course, UNHCR stands ready to provide all the necessary technical assistance and training required for the drafting of national legislation and implementation of the Convention.

SR: What is your opinion about UNHCR's involvement regarding Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and how does UNHCR deal with them, as there is a big controversy about their existence in Bangladesh?
Many IDPs flee their homes for the same reasons as refugees but remain within their own country as oppose to refugees who flee to another country. Though UNHCR does not have a specific mandate for IDPs, we are assisting several millions among the estimated 25 million IDPs worldwide. These UNHCR operations on IDPs are initiated at the request of the UN Secretary-General or the General Assembly, with the consent of the country involved and have included recent crises in Colombia, the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa, Afghanistan, East Timor and Sri Lanka.

Discussions are on going within the UN on how deal with IDP issues as they are related to forced displacement. UNHCR has many years of experience in handling emergency situations and providing protection, shelter and camp management and care. With the IDP numbers increasing while refugee numbers are decreasing, UNHCR is best placed to help these people who are often living in close proximity with the refugees. As of the end of 2005, UNHCR has cared for 6.6 million IDPs globally.

In Bangladesh, we are not involved with forced internal displacement. UNHCR would need a request from the Government to the UN Secretary General to be engaged in IDP issues here.

SR: There is an allegation that the Rohingya refugees are involved with most of the smugglings and other disturbances in greater Cox's Bazaar area and it has a negative impact on the role of UNHCR as it provides shelter to them. Do you want to comment on that?
PPP: The host Government is responsible for camp management and law and order. If a refugee commits any crime in the host country, the individual would not be immune from the law of the land and the individual should be prosecuted just as any other perpetrator. However, our responsibility is to ensure proper legal representation for the accused in the court of law, if needed.

SR: What are the challenges you face so far working in Bangladesh as you have taken up the Representative post recently?
PPP: UNHCR started its operation in Bangladesh in the early 1990s and I think we should consider it as a success as so far, more than 236,700 refugees have voluntarily repatriated, and now there are only about 21,000 refugees in two camps. The refugees have been here for the last 15 years and many were born here. Nearly 50 percent of the total population is below 17-years-old. UNHCR provides them with care and maintenance assistance, protection and facilitates their voluntary repatriation. We believe that once it is possible to go home, all the refugees would take the opportunity to do so because it is really difficult to lead a life in the refugee camps.

Working for refugees is always a challenge for us as the environment is not always conducive while we have international standards to maintain a minimum standard of treatment for shelter, food, health care, reproductive health, education for children and other minimum necessaries for the care and maintenance of the refugees. We are currently lobbying with the Government to introduce bilingual medium of instruction for refugee children's schooling in their own mother tongue and in English. For now, they have access to informal education in Burmese while their mother tongue is Rohingya. It is challenging work to empower them as over the years, many of them have been deskilled or incapacitated by the many years of living in the camps.

SR: After 9/11, many anti- terrorist legislations are being enacted which have a very negative impact on the rights of the asylum seekers. What is your observation on that?
PPP: Yes, it is true that the aftermath of September 11 has changed many things. The refugees' right to seek asylum and freedom of movement are very much more restricted as security concerns in many States are heightened. It is very important to underscore that refugees are victims of serious human rights abuses or are fleeing from wars similar to the situation of Bangladeshis who fled during the Liberation War. The act of granting asylum to fleeing refugees is a humanitarian act and should not be forgotten. Perpetrators of human rights abuses or war criminals are excluded from our mandate. It is true that genuine asylum seekers often arrive in mixed group of people to a receiving State some are refugees, some are economic migrants and it can be difficult to differentiate. This is also why it is important to accede to the 1951 Convention and to set up institutionalised structures and procedures.

SR: The role of media and the civil society are also important for changing any policy or situation. How do you see that?
PPP: As you know, the media can play an immensely important role in forming public opinion. Sometimes, I get extremely concerned with some press reporting as they tend to generalise and stereotype that refugees are terrorists or are involved in criminal activities. It is important to use words carefully so as not to demonise all the refugees just because there are some allegations that some of them or “foreigners” are involved in criminal activities.

Sometimes reporting from a global viewpoint can also bring different perspectives. In Bangladesh, the refugee issue is not serious if viewed in a global context. It is in fact a small humanitarian issue which can be resolved if all were to work together. The media when reporting on the plight of refugees should avoid stereotyping and instead concentrate on the very human stories that all refugees have. We need politicians to lend their voices to bring this issue to the Bangladeshi people and to Parliament. UNHCR cannot tackle this issue alone. We need all the help we can get including the support of human rights organisations.

The author is working with Law Desk, The Daily Star.


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