The United Nations on Friday launched an appeal for nearly $1 billion to care for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, while underscoring that efforts must remain focused on securing the safe return to Myanmar of those displaced.
UN agencies asked for $951 million (774 million euros) through the rest of the year to provide basic needs for the nearly one million Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, including the almost 700,000 who have crossed the border since August.
The head of the UN refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, told reporters that the immediate concern was mobilising life-saving aid for refugees, especially with monsoon season approaching and tens of thousands of people living in areas prone to landslides and floods.
Grandi again acknowledged that it "may take a very long time" before any Rohingya can return to their home in Myanmar's Rakhine state, in the absence of any evidence that they will be safe if they go back.
The Rohingya fled after Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown on insurgents six months ago that the UN has called "ethnic cleansing" -- a claim the country vehemently denies.
But Grandi insisted that despite those circumstances, he would not stop fighting for the repatriation of those who wish to return home.
"I think it is very important to talk about the right of the Rohingya to return," he said, adding that he "cannot entertain the notion" where their displacement is deemed permanent.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in November to begin repatriating Rohingya who volunteered to return to Rakhine state, where the persecuted Muslim minority has lived for generations.
Grandi conceded that the conditions for safe return are not in place and that discussions with Myanmar on repatriation "have been pretty basic, not very frequent (and) not very advanced".
But, he added, those talks "have continued".
"We have to take this thing one step at a time," he said, reiterating the need for humanitarian assistance while repatriation negotiations play out.