In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune's Syed Samiul Basher Anik, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who was in Bangladesh from April 24 to 28, discussed the current priorities for the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, and need for continuous support and funding from global communities to deal with the crisis
Having just spent few hours in the camps, what are you most concerned about right now?
It is my fourth visit to the camps. In particular, if I compare my visit in October 2017, after the influx sent 100,000 people, and now, the situation has changed. Thanks to the leadership of the Bangladesh government – its generosity and openness - and the work of the UN and other organisations, including many national NGOs, things have improved in terms of the living conditions of the refugees.
However, it is certainly still a very challenging situation, because of the crowded areas, and as crowding also generates tensions, exposure of the vulnerable refugees to violence. Also, the impact on the local community is bigger now.
After two years of this particular situation, you can see changes everywhere. We have spent time with local community leaders on environment and traffic jams because the roads are congested, availability of land, impact on services, healthcare, prices of commodities, etc – all these issues need to be addressed.
What is the agenda of your visit this time?
I did not come alone, I am here with two senior UN officials- the director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the United Nations under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, and emergency relief coordinator.
The reason why we came together is to say to the world that it is still a very challenging situation. We have a funding appeal that is only very modestly covered so far. Last year, we did relatively well so we need to do well again for this year, as we need more financial contributions.
Another positive impact from my visit two years ago is that, it is not only humanitarians that are involved here, but the World Bank, The Asian Development Bank as well. This is very important because they can look at things from varied and different perspectives.
They can look at the environment, the economy, the services and infrastructure, considering different kind of aspects. It complements what humanitarians do to relieve the immediate pressure.
Do you think voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, with dignity and safety, can take place? Will you take initiatives to do work in Myanmar?
I met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday, and the main part of the conversation with the premier was on how to solve this problem. And she is quite right when she says it cannot be solved without repatriation.
But repatriation has to be voluntary, and this is something that needs to be recognised, in that Bangladesh has respected humanitarianism by not pushing people back. Unfortunately, many of the reasons why people came here have not been addressed. In particular - citizenship, freedom of movement, access to jobs and services, etc, need to be addressed in Myanmar.
We are doing work in Myanmar. It would be a wrong perception to say we do nothing, but it is still too slow. We were to assess a thousand villages, but we assessed only a hundred. Now, we have started implementing some projects. This is a starting point. This allows us to be present in the areas where the people came from. These are small steps that I think needs to be followed by bigger steps so that we can create the environment for repatriation. It is the responsibility of Myanmar to create the condition for people to go back- this is the solution. This is what people want, but not right now because they are afraid.
Do you think the talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar has so far brought any visible outcome? What role can the international community play?
These are bilateral discussions and we are not part of them, although we are available to be. The discussions have been very much on the same issues. I think it is good that the two countries are talking. It is always positive when two countries- one from which the refugees originated, and one where they went- talk to each other, because their cooperation is indispensable in finding a solution. Fundamentally, Bangladesh has lived up big time to its obligations of providing shelter to these people, but the ball is very much in the court of Myanmar to create the conditions for people to go back.
I am planning to go to each, and this is the message I will bring: that we are available to help them work on these issues - the message of cooperation. The role of my organization is to help states create these conditions for the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees.
Which country in the world today is ready to take a million people? But we should not take the generosity for granted. We must really make sure that, as much as possible, the international community helps to share the burden Bangladesh is shouldering largely by itself, although with our help. But this help needs to continue and be expanded.
How do you consider the development plan on relocation of Rohingyas to Bhashan Char?
We are completely available for this discussion at the technical level, because these matters you cannot discuss in theory, but in practice. We have experts- if the government wants us, we are available.
The monsoon will begin shortly and thousands of Rohingyas are living in areas prone to flooding or landslides. What precautions are needed to avoid casualties?
The monsoon season is approaching, maybe cyclones too. I think the people in the camps learned a lot about monsoon preparedness and response last year. Last year was maybe a mild year, but a lot of work has been done - reinforcing pathways, shelters, training the community on how to respond, etc. On the rain issue, the level of preparedness has progressed and needs more resources to be fully achieved.
But, of course, cyclone preparedness is more challenging. Here we really look towards Bangladesh for leadership. Bangladesh has decades of experience in protecting its own community from cyclones. Now there are evacuation systems, and shelter systems that help the community. We are really looking to Bangladesh for leadership and cooperation in preparing for that, especially in case of an alert.
But in general, because this season is lengthy, all these preparations need resources. This is why I am a bit worried. The funding appeal that we put out in February is still very modestly funded- about 15%-20%. Last year, to give you a comparison, it was 70% at the end of the year.
There was a lot of support from the international community, and this needs to continue. We are still in the early part of the year, so these contributions may come a little bit later. But we cannot wait too long, because we also need to prepare for the rainy season.
Do you have any messages to share with Bangladesh on how we shall proceed further to deal with the crisis?
First of all, the refugee crisis here in Bangladesh has been one of the three bigger priorities for us and we are fully committed to continuing our support here in Bangladesh.
The second message is that we need to continuously play our role in respect to dealing with the government of Myanmar- that is the key to all this. We need to continue to insist on the issues I have spoken about, because this is where the solution lies.
Thirdly, I recognise very much the burden that is on the country, especially on the people here and the authorities of the government - the responsibilities that Bangladesh has taken upon itself. It has done it in the same spirit, a humanitarian spirit that has characterized Bangladesh’s action in so many other ways. We hope that the humanitarian spirit- the spirit that has named Sheikh Hasina as ‘mother of humanity’- will continue.