Filippo Grandi is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While on a five-day visit to Bangladesh, on 25 May he spoke about various aspects of the Rohingya crisis in an interview with Prothom Alo's diplomatic correspondent Raheed Ejaz.
Finally the MoU with the Myanmar government is been extended. How hopeful you are in regards to moving towards the Rohingya repatriation?
The current regime led by the army finally renewed the MoU between the Myanmar government, the UNDP and the UNHCR. It was a three-year agreement which expired last year. So we had to negotiate with the de facto authority for its renewal. That was not very easy. That was a very limited international engagement because this is not a recognised government. Since it is a humanitarian activity we were authorised by everybody including the UN to negotiate along with the UNDP. Less than two months ago we got the permission for the negotiation. Now the next step is to expand those activities.
Do you have free access to the Rakhine province?
We have access on the strength of the agreement. Now we have this permission. In Myanmar you need to have an MoU that allows you to work. Then movements have to be authorised one by one. This was same in the previous government. It is constant discussion and negotiation.
So you are hopeful of free access there?
We never stop having access. Even when the MoU was lapsed, we could continue our activities but that was reduced because we didn't get permission to renew it. Now we can do that. We will continue to be engaged from the humanitarian point of view with the de facto authority.
You mentioned earlier that the Rohingya taking shelter in Bangladesh were eager to return to their place of origin in an environment conducive to return there. However, almost after a decade of the sectarian violence, some hundred thousand Rohingya are still languishing in the IDPs. Do you feel that this scenario encourages Rohingyas in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine?
Let's be very frank. The signals we got in the past few years were very limited on the key issues of freedom of movement, access of services, ensuring security and livelihood as well as clear pathway of citizenship. I used to tell Aung San Suu Kyi that if the tens of thousands people in the IDP camps are allowed to go back, this will be a signal also for those many more that are outside Rakhine. I remember before the coup and the change of government, we had progress on this issue. There was a strategy for the return and how we would support. I think we were inching towards that but suddenly like everything else there was a setback. We need to be frank that this change in government, the coup has been a setback in many ways. It has also reduced overall engagement that was previously there. We've to start again patiently in difficult circumstance.
Do you think that until the democratic forces come to power it will be difficult to negotiate with the authorities of Myanmar to address the problems of ethnic minorities including the Rohingya?
Do mean if the NUG...?
Not NUG. Until the democratic forces return to power…
I hope Myanmar goes back to the path of democracy. There are almost one million displaced people in Myanmar due to the violence that is prevailing other parts of the country. I hope this is going to happen. My organisation is a humanitarian organisation and we deal with whoever controls the territory and the people that we care for, who are present or need to go back. We will have to continue to deal with whoever is in power and we hope that they will understand that is an important humanitarian process they have to back, irrespective of the democratic process which is important one but separate from our perspective.
Why are the donor and diplomatic communities still in a dilemma about funding the Bhasan Char project?
No one puts money in a project that is not sustainable. This is a project with many uncertainties including that it is in the middle of the sea with very few connections. But I believe that after my visit here I'm encouraged that the government is well aware of this and intends to move on the path of sustainability. And I told the foreign minister that we also wanted to cooperate Bangladesh. I spoke to my UN colleagues about what are really the measures to be taken to make it sustainable. Movement is important. But it is important before sustainability. One of the issues we inserted in the MoU of the UN which we signed with the Bangladesh government is that people would be allowed to go and come for family visits. And this is their choice.
Do you refer to split families?
Well, I think after the signing of the MoU and now that we have started cooperating more, this involuntariness has decreased. But the implication of family visits is still complicated partly because there are very few boats. So they depend on both weather and boats. These are all challenges. But I give one example. I met one young man with his family there. He told me he was happy to be there. He chose to go there because he know he could go time to time to Cox's Bazar to see his elderly father who didn't opt to go Bhasan Char because of old age as well as afraid of the sea. So he told me as long as he could go every few months to visit his father, he was fine. But he told me that the visit is so complicated. Sometimes they have to pay for transport. So we need to fix that. That is part of sustainability for the people.
Didn't the Rohingya community raise the issue of security concerns in Cox's Bazar?
First, I think the security forces in Bangladesh are doing a good job to try to counter that and we are in very much contact with them at the ground level. Yes people are worried, especially the women. They said when men go out of the huts they are worried about kidnapping sometimes for ransom. I find it more a criminal issue than political. But there could be also some political issues. In Bhasan Char some of them mentioned that they moved from Cox's Bazar because they felt safer there. The Bangladesh government has a big dilemma to face. The policy of the government is that this is temporary. So people have to be supported by international assistance. That of course creates a bit of a bubble, a bit of a marginalisation. You see, it’s a bit of a vicious circle and I'm not suggesting for a moment that is easy to address. Let's say one thing positive. I remember when I came here last time education was big discussion. Then the government agreed that they could learn according to the Myanmar curriculum which most of the refugees are fine with. Now this will open up some space. It will give a little bit of hope to the people. It will keep many more people busy, children will go to school. This is good. This is positive. An educated population can better resist the temptation of radicalisation and violence.
The number of refugees crossed the 100 million mark. Do you feel that the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and Ukraine might hamper the funding for Rohingya in future?
The refugees told me again, more than usual, that I should do more. You must do more to put pressure on Myanmar for us to be able to go back. They see me as representative of the international community. Why do we have a hundred million refugees? Ten years ago the number was up to 40 million. Now it is more than double because of the political failure.
Look at the Security Council, the main organ supposes to fix peace and security in the world. Their record is terrible and it is dismal. If they cannot fix that, we have to continue to deal with the growing consequences of this inability to make peace and to convince the Myanmar government to do the right thing. You need the concerted actions by governments with influence. I been in the Security Council and they start fighting even about humanitarian issues. Everybody wants to pull it in their own direction. How can we operate? I have to go for the money not for 40 million now for 100 million people. The government of Bangladesh tries to do their best to host them. It is really very difficult and I'm very frustrated about this.