The United Nations refugee agency is urging Canada to provide it with more funding to respond to the needs of half a million Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, as it anticipates another refugee influx in the coming days.
Last week, the UNHCR issued an urgent global appeal for $84-million (U.S.) over the next six months to help the 520,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since August. Canada has provided $12.25-million (Canadian) in humanitarian assistance to partners in Myanmar and Bangladesh this year, including $1.2-million for the UNHCR in Bangladesh.
The UNHCR's representative in Canada, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, called on the government to increase its funding for the agency in Bangladesh, comparing Ottawa's commitment with the $300,000 the Canadian public has donated to the UNHCR for the Rohingya crisis over the past two to three weeks.
"We are definitely calling on Canada and other countries to continue paying attention to the situation and providing us and our partners with the necessary funding to be able to respond to the crisis," Mr. Beuze told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.
"The Canadian public has responded very positively to our appeal. We already have some 300,000 Canadian dollars from the public and that is very commendable, especially because there are so many [international] crises."
Mr. Beuze's call for increased funding comes as the UNHCR prepares for another possible influx in Rohingya over the coming days, following the arrival of more than 11,000 refugees in Bangladesh on Monday. The ethnic minority is fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, where they suffer from serious restrictions on their basic rights.
Canadian taxpayers' dollars are providing life-saving assistance for Rohingya refugees, including shelter, medical care and nutritional needs, Mr. Beuze said. The money is also funding the UNHCR's refugee registration system in Bangladesh and its reunification efforts for Rohingya families separated during the long trek from Myanmar.
Mr. Beuze said his colleagues in Bangladesh have met Rohingya who walked for upwards of two weeks before they crossed the Naf river that divides the two countries. He said most can't swim, piggybacking on volunteer swimmers or using inflated plastic bags as flotation devices; many families are split up in the process.
"We have a number of children who get separated from their families because it's massive groups of people who move together," he said.
Upon arrival in Bangladesh, exhausted Rohingya are registered with the UNHCR and given medical attention. Mr. Beuze said many arrive with injuries, skin diseases or diarrhea. Oxfam warned on Wednesday that aid workers are in a "race against time" to stop the rapid spread of disease, including a potential cholera outbreak.
With just 30,000 Rohingya in Bangladeshi refugee camps, Mr. Beuze said most are living in makeshift shelters constructed out of the stilts and plastic sheets provided by the UNHCR.
The recent violence in Myanmar began at the end of August, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in Rakhine. Myanmar's military responded by killing hundreds of people, triggering the recent exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh. Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and honorary Canadian citizen – and the country's military are under increasing international pressure to end the violence in Rakhine.
With nearly half of the Rohingya population fleeing over the past six weeks, Mr. Beuze said there is a real possibility that the entire population could eventually leave Myanmar.