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Craig Sanders, Representative, UNHCR Representation in Bangladesh


24 November 2011

In the same year Bangladesh celebrates its 40th anniversary of independence, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees turns 60 and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness marks its 50th year of existence. These are landmark dates for both Bangladesh and UNHCR.

Forty years ago, between April and December, 1971, 10 million refugees fled the tumultuous events in what was then East Pakistan to find safety in neighboring India. The figures were staggering: at the end of May, more than 100,000 desperate refugees were crossing the border every day.  This massive exodus was the largest single displacement of refugees in the second half of the 20th century.  With the monsoon rains, it was also a period of extreme hardship and despair.

In the last days of 1971, as the war came to a close, refugees were already returning in large numbers to an independent Bangladesh.  Within a year, the majority of refugees were home in what still stands out today as one of the major repatriations UNHCR has ever conducted. The scale of this massive and complex humanitarian operation was a first for the UN refugee agency and was the beginning of an intertwined history between Bangladesh and UNHCR. The experiences of 1971 and the following years helped shape UNHCR.

While India allowed refugees from East Pakistan to stay temporarily, it could not meet all their needs. The UN Secretary-General turned to UNHCR with the new concept of “focal point” to co-ordinate the inter-agency response for the first time in a humanitarian crisis. UNHCR and its partners mobilized international support and funds and helped procure and deliver relief supplies to India, which organized their distribution. Even with international support, it was the Indian government that assumed overall responsibility for handling the crisis on the ground. UNHCR’s work continued in Bangladesh after the war, where it organized the exchange of 231,000 stranded civilians between Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1973-1974, one of the largest civilian airlifts ever.

This book bears witness to these dramatic events through the eyes and lenses of a remarkable group of photographers, some of whom were refugees themselves at that time. Some were already famous and others would go on to find fame. All these photographers captured images which tell a powerful human story.  Today many Bangladeshis still hold vivid and sometimes traumatic memories of their 1971 experiences.  For many, the images in this book may trigger haunting recollections of their own displacement and bring to the surface the pain and grief of that war. For others, these images may serve as a record of a time which should not be forgotten.  Our hope is that beyond the portraits of hardship and suffering, readers may take inspiration from the powerful spirit and dignity of the people of Bangladesh.

Though the huge-scale displacement in 1971 may be a distant memory for some, refugee flight continues and so UNHCR’s work remains unfinished.  In 1978 and again in 1991, UNHCR returned to Bangladesh to respond to influxes of refugees from Myanmar.  Today, some 29,000 registered refugees reside in two camps in Cox's Bazar District, while an estimated 200,000 undocumented Myanmarese reside in host communities and makeshift sites along the coastal belt of southeastern Bangladesh.

The pains that the people of Bangladesh experienced forty years ago  — loss of home and loved ones, helplessness, uncertainty about the future – are the same emotions that all displaced people suffer today.  In this year of anniversaries, as we reflect upon the UN conventions, it should not be forgotten that Bangladesh hosts one of the longest-running situations involving refugees and stateless persons in the world today.  Pondering the powerful images of 40 years ago, if Bangladesh’s birth tells us anything, it is that solutions to displacement are possible and often within reach.


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