The UN refugee agency chief has agreed to boost support to Rohingya refugees relocated to a remote and flood-prone island in Bangladesh, despite concerns people were moved there against their will.
Speaking to reporters in Dhaka on Wednesday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi promised to “step up our presence” on the island.
Bangladesh aims to eventually relocate around 100,000 Rohingya refugees to the previously uninhabited Bhashan Char to ease overcrowding in the sprawling network of refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar.
Around 920,000 members of the stateless Muslim minority are currently packed into squalid border camps there, reliant on aid after they fled violence and a 2017 military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.
“Much has already been done [in Bhashan Char] by Bangladeshi NGOs and now by the UN agencies with the government,” Grandi said.
“We need to do more and I agree with the government who has urged me to step up.”
UNHCR signed a deal last year with Bangladesh authorities to help aid and protect refugees on Bhashan Char, where about 20,000 refugees have already been shifted.
But with only 13 percent of the UN refugee agency’s $881 million annual response plan for the Rohingya currently funded, Grandi acknowledged it would be a struggle.
“I am a bit worried … first of all, here, there is more needs because there is Bhashan Char, and now with Ukraine and Afghanistan and a lot of other competing crises we will struggle a bit.”
While Bangladesh was praised for taking in refugees escaping a military campaign in Myanmar that the US has said amounted to genocide, after five years, Dhaka has had little success finding permanent homes for the Rohingya.
Human rights monitors have said that Rohingya leaders have been coerced into persuading camp residents to move to Bhashan Char, while hundreds already sent there have since been arrested in coastal towns after fleeing the island by sea.
Located around 60km (37 miles) from the mainland, Bhashan Char sits at the heart of an estuary prone to powerful cyclones.
Grandi said the long-term solution for the Rohingya remains in Myanmar.
“The Rohingya refugees I met reiterated their desire to return home when conditions allow. The world must work to address the root causes of their flight and to translate those dreams into reality,” Grandi said, and he urged the international community to not forget about the Rohingya refugees.
“This is why I am here, to try to shine a spotlight on Bangladesh, its people, and the Rohingya refugees it has been hosting for decades, and to remind the international community of the importance of their support,” he told reporters.
More than 700,000 of the majority-Muslim Rohingya fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh after August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group. Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.
The Rohingya are not recognised as citizens in Myanmar, rendering them stateless, and they face other forms of state-sanctioned discrimination and violence.
Bangladesh has tried at least twice to begin sending refugees back to Myanmar, but they have refused to go, citing continuing danger – and the flight of refugees continues.
At least 16 Rohingya died after a storm capsized the boat they were travelling on to seek refuge in another country, officials in Myanmar and a recovery team member said Tuesday.
Four people remain missing and there were 35 survivors of Saturday’s accident that took place off Myanmar’s southwestern coast, the officials said.
“The latest tragedy shows once again the sense of desperation being felt by Rohingya in Myanmar and in the region,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s director for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement.
“It is shocking to see increasing numbers of children, women and men embarking on these dangerous journeys and eventually losing their lives,” he said.