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.