Some $67mn required for operations in Bhasan Char, says UNHCR Representative

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, together with the Bangladesh government will soon launch the Joint Response Plan for 2023 to appeal to donor partners for funding to meet the needs of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and the local communities hosting them here.

"We shall appeal for approximately $876 million in all relevant sectors, of which some $67 million would be required for our operations on Bhasan Char," Johannes van der Klaauw, UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh, told UNB in an exclusive interview.

As in the past, he said, they do not expect this budget to be funded to the full, but the gap is expected to be much larger in the coming year.

"We therefore need to redouble our efforts to mobilize resources and notably development funding, to be used in a flexible manner, as humanitarian aid budgets are no longer available," said the senior UN official.

At the same time, Klaauw said, they are prioritizing funding needs more than before - focusing on the most vulnerable and addressing the most critical gaps.

UNHCR continues to appeal for further investments by the international community in refugees' education and skills development, including vocational training and other forms of capacity-building for adolescent and adult refugees, and opportunities to put the acquired learning and skills into practice through livelihood projects.

Rohingya refugees should be allowed to become self-reliant, to purchase part of their daily food, cooking gas, household items, as general distribution of these commodities will no longer be possible as a result of a reduction in financial support from the international community, said Klaauw who leads UNHCR's response for the Rohingya refugees hosted in the country.

This will allow the refugees to support their communities and live with dignity while in exile in Bangladesh, and above all to prepare them for rebuilding their lives when they can voluntarily and safely return to Myanmar, he said.

Key Features of Joint Response Plan 2023

The Joint Response Plan 2023 will appeal to the international community to renew its sustained support for Rohingya refugees and the Bangladeshi communities generously hosting them.

The plan aims to support approximately 1.47 million people, including 978,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar and Bhasan Char, and around 495,000 Bangladeshis in the localities, Klaauw said.

Under the leadership of the Bangladeshi authorities, the joint response will bring together the activities of the partners, of which more than half are Bangladeshi organizations.

The plan focuses on strengthening the protection and safety of refugee women, men, girls and boys, notably the most vulnerable among them, such as persons with disabilities or victims of trauma and violence, Klaauw said.

It aims to maintain and enhance lifesaving and life-sustaining humanitarian assistance and services for Rohingya, by providing decent shelter and access to food, health, water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

The plan also supports humanitarian projects in the surrounding host communities as the social, economic conditions and the environment have been impacted by the presence of the Rohingya refugees.

Furthermore, Klaauw said, the plan aims at strengthening the Rohingya and host communities' capacities to protect them from, and timely and effectively respond to the disasters caused by recurrent monsoon rains, cyclones and landslides, as well as the effects of climate change.

And finally, he said, the overarching goal of the plan remains to prepare the Rohingyas for voluntary and sustainable return with safety and dignity to the Rakhine State in Myanmar, their homeland.

"As we have moved into a protracted refugee situation, six years into the latest influx, we need to focus on making the response more sustainable by scaling up skills development and access to livelihoods for Rohingya refugees, so they can support their communities," said the UNHCR representative.

He said, "Rohingyas stand at the core of the humanitarian activities in the camps. From controlling fires and responding to floods, teaching in the learning centers, providing community health support, to participating in vaccination campaigns, they are serving their communities. They have proven their dedication, discipline and capacity, and to sustain this, more support needs to be provided."

He said more must also be done to enhance education, which will prove more effective with the rollout of the Myanmar Curriculum, as more children and adolescents will have access to a formal curriculum.

These activities will prepare refugees for eventual return while also helping them remain safe and active during their stay in Bangladesh, Klaauw said.

Funding Gaps

UNHCR is "concerned" about the funding gaps in Bangladesh, as in other operations. While donors have been generous, the ripple effects of the Russia-Ukraine war are affecting UNHCR's ability to deliver equitably around the world, said the UNHCR representative.

Responding to a question, he said with decreased funding, Rohingya refugees will face additional challenges in their daily lives.

One example is that protection needs, especially for women, children and people with disabilities, which are often underreported, could no longer be met, said the UNHCR senior official.

Another concern is that refugees will no longer have access to sufficient nutritious food and will no longer have access to quality healthcare, he added.

"We must do everything to avoid that the Rohingya situation will turn into a forgotten crisis and will no longer receive the minimum funding required to keep up the services and interventions in the camps and on Bhasan Char," Klaauw said.

He said they are working to appeal to donors to help sustain protection services and assistance delivery to the Rohingya refugees in the camps by identifying the resources, as well as diversifying the funding sources, including by engaging the private sector.

"We also need to give the Rohingyas opportunities to become less dependent on humanitarian aid by investing in their skills and livelihood projects to render them more resilient and capacitate them to address their own basic subsistence needs," Klaauw said.

The refugees themselves do not wish to remain dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Bhasan Char Island

Since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the government of Bangladesh and the UN in 2021, there has been a continuous call for funding to strengthen the humanitarian response on the island.

The 2023 JRP, as did the appeal from 2022, calls on the international community to generously support humanitarian activities on Bhasan Char.

"Immediate needs identified are being addressed by the UN under UNHCR leadership, such as registration, health, protection, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene services, while the shelters and infrastructure built by the government are being maintained to ensure the viability of life on the island," Klaauw said.

Humanitarian assistance includes the distribution of food, non-food items, nutritional supplements, medical supplies and medication.

The UN remains committed to support the government led project of Bhasan Char, focusing primarily on scaling up these essential humanitarian services on the island, Klaauw said.

But equally important is to invest in the sustainability of life on the island in the longer term, by means of scaling up education, skills building and creating livelihood opportunities, including through involvement of the private sector, he said.

"The sustainability of the government's project on Bhasan Char would best be served if the project is to be approached from a longer-term development perspective, building on the government's investments that include enhanced connectivity of the island with the neighbouring islands and the mainland," Klaauw said.

This will allow the refugee community on the island to become increasingly self-reliant through investments in education, skills development, and livelihood opportunities, he mentioned.

It is also essential that the government continues to ensure the voluntary and informed relocation of refugees to the island, while taking concrete steps to provide expanded and more regular movements between Bhasan Char and the mainland, notably to the camps in Cox's Bazar, for the purpose of family visits, healthcare and livelihood opportunities, he said.

Beyond receiving sufficient funding for the implementation of the 2023 Joint Response plan, UNHCR hopes that the narrative in the media and in society around the presence, activities and needs of the Rohingya refugees will show empathy and understanding for their protection and assistance needs.

"No one chooses to become a refugee, no one wishes to remain in exile for any time longer than needed," he said.

Under the leadership of the Government of Bangladesh, the humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees has saved and improved tens of thousands of lives since August 2017.

Bangladesh's role in response to the massive influx of Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar has been recognized globally, Klaauw said while responding to a question.

"At UNHCR we renew our appreciation to the government and people of Bangladesh for providing a safe haven for the Rohingyas and remain committed to finding solutions to their plight," he said.

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