MUMBAI, India – In Bangladesh, authorities hope World Refugee Day will help bring attention to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to the country from neighboring Myanmar.
Last year, the Myanmar’s security forces began a “clearance operation” in the state after Rohingya militants attacked several police stations. The U.N. and the U.S. both described the military campaign as “ethnic cleansing.”
The Rohingya – a Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority country – have faced persecution for decades and were denied citizenship under a nationality law passed by Myanmar’s military regime in 1982. They’re officially – and, in the eyes of many experts, deceptively – considered “Bengali interlopers.”
“There are 693,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” said Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, the Archbishop of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
Although there are only about 350,000 Catholics in Bangladesh – or 0.2 percent of the population, the majority of which is Muslim – the Catholic charity Caritas has been one of the leading organizations in helping the Rohingya refugees.
“The main concern of the Church of Bangladesh is taking care of and concern for the Rohingyas,” D’Rozario said.
“According to the government’s list, Caritas is the fourth largest NGO in monetary involvement,” the cardinal told Crux.
He said children are 52 percent of the Rohingya refugees, and women and children together make up 70 percent.
“The Church in Bangladesh has a SFC program: ‘Safe Space for Children.’ We have nine safety centers, which are inside the camps,” D’Rozario continued.
He said these centers serve “get together programs.”
“In these safe spaces children play together, sing together and learn together. We have even recruited refugees to look after the children,” the cardinal said, adding that the centers are built by Caritas, but funded by the Catholic Church of Bangladesh.
He said during the Bangladeshi bishops’ recent visit to Rome, Pope Francis told him he was “touched in his heart” by his meeting with Rohingyas in Bangladesh on Dec. 1, 2017, during his pastoral visit to the South Asian country last year.
“The Holy Father was appreciative that he was close to the people,” D’Rozario said. “It moved everyone that the Holy Father asked pardon and forgiveness from the Rohingyas.”
Caritas and other agencies are currently trying to prepare the refugee camps for the upcoming monsoon season.
Most of the camps are located near the town of Cox’s Bazar, which is on the Bay of Bengal, which is prone to cyclones.
The agencies are tying to help shift those most at risk and to distribute shelter-strengthening kits, particularly to the elderly and other vulnerable people.
Caritas Bangladesh and Catholic Relief Services – the overseas agency of the U.S. bishops – have completed a pilot project, with U.N. funding, using topographical aerial data to identify low-lying and steep areas exposed to flooding and landslides.
Rohingya in those areas were then provided with help to build more resilient shelters, cement-lined drainage systems, retaining walls and sandbag paths.
“Neighboring communities are asking for similar support, and visitors immediately recognize the difference,” said Mazharul Islam, Caritas’s local head of programs in Cox’s Bazaar.
“The sense of pride is palpable, and many community members have initiated additional improvements, such as home gardens where guava, chili, tomato and eggplant are being grown,” he said.
Myanmar and U.N. agencies signed an agreement on June 6 that promises to establish a “framework of cooperation” that aims to create conditions for “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation of Rohingya refugees but does not address Myanmar’s denial of citizenship for the minority.