Rohingya crisis: Advocates urge Canada rethink strategy

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Rohingya refugee children collect drinking water after a midnight fire raced through their refugee camp at Kutupalong in Cox's Bazar district, Bangladesh, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Shafiqur Rahman

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As Canada's strategy to support the Rohingya comes to an end, advocates are calling for a rethink in the way Ottawa seeks to limit suffering in refugee camps in Bangladesh and rout the military junta overseeing ethnic violence in Myanmar.

“We can’t walk away from this,” said Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Rae as special envoy to Myanmar after Buddhist extremists committed brazen violence against their Muslim neighbors, the Rohingya. Human rights groups say the country's military has killed, raped and burned entire villages.

The crisis has forced nearly a million Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are languishing in an overcrowded camp. Rae released a report on the crisis that led Canada to launch a strategy in 2018.

Ottawa appointed Rae to the UN in 2020, and Myanmar's military staged a coup against Myanmar's young democratic government in 2021.

The military junta has seen increasing ethnic conflict in Myanmar, which Rae described as “more catastrophic by the hour.”

Across the border in Bangladesh, the city of Cox's Bazar is home to the world's largest refugee camp, which Jason Nickerson, an Ottawa-based MSF representative, visited in February.

“The camp itself is a pretty miserable and also troubled place,” he said. “It’s surrounded by a chain-link fence and people don’t have the legal ability to leave the country and pursue employment.”

There are almost no permanent structures, leading to frequent outbreaks of scabies and communicable diseases. Some have started taking risky trips to countries like Malaysia, where they end up being exploited.

“Much of the world has evolved in terms of funding and donor interest, and so services are declining,” Nickerson said.

“Conditions in the camp in Bangladesh are objectively and demonstrably worse when we look at public health indicators and medical needs in our clinics.”

Nickerson was concerned that Rohingya were not mentioned in last month's federal budget, particularly because Ottawa launched a second phase of its Rohingya strategy in 2021, which ended on March 31 of this year.

“Canada has shown real leadership and commitment to the Rohingya people over several years in responding to this major humanitarian emergency, and I think it's really not enough to just leave it alone,” he said.

Global Affairs Canada wouldn't say whether a third phase was in the works, although Rae said: “There will definitely be a next phase, no question.” The work continues.”

The conflict has largely disappeared from the news cycle, dwarfed by crises elsewhere. But Rae insists this is a common theme at UN headquarters, where he leads a multinational working group on Myanmar.

“It’s just a matter of everyone figuring out what to do about it, and that’s where I think our collective efforts still fall short.”

He said Canada has a “substantial and multi-dimensional” response to the crisis, such as working with the Netherlands to examine the military junta's accountability through international courts.

Myanmar is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member bloc that Rae says has made efforts to engage diplomatically with the regime but has failed to dissuade it from violence.

Meanwhile, autocracies have increased their support for the military junta.

“The junta has the de facto support of the Chinese government and the very active military support of the Russian government,” he said. “This polarization of support has become even more apparent.”

Rae said countries like Canada must do everything they can to establish a democratic government through elections in Myanmar. “This is the only way we can implement a process of repatriating the Rohingya.”

He noted that this spring's budget includes general humanitarian funds and the Indo-Pacific Strategy, in addition to the $600 million Canada has committed in response to the Rohingya crisis since 2017, efforts for the Rohingya population can promote.

Jaivet Ealom, head of the Rohingya Center of Canada, said he appreciated Ottawa's diplomatic efforts to ensure accountability. But he says Canada could do much more to help those stuck in the camp.

“Canada is not using all the resources it has at its disposal,” said Ealom, who fled Myanmar in 2013.

Rae had called on a senior official to coordinate responses from all federal departments and report publicly, which Ealom regrets never happened.

He said Canada largely wrote checks to large multilateral organizations, which he said were often slow to respond and struggled to gain full access to the Rohingya in the camp. He said that was a problem because Bangladeshi officials monitored some of the aid deliveries and therefore it was unlikely that Rohingya would raise problems with the camp in front of people from Bangladeshi organizations.

Ealom says Canada should better consult the Rohingya diaspora and connect with their contacts on the ground, including people who run their own projects in the camp that would benefit from foreign money.

He said Rohingya welcomed Canadian-funded early childhood education projects, but there was little to help young adults gain academic qualifications that would help them pursue higher education. Ealom said the lack of opportunities or prospects for resettlement abroad contributes to Rohingya youth in the camp joining armed gangs.

“This is happening because there is no hope at the end of the tunnel,” he said, arguing Canada should re-evaluate its strategy based on what actually works.

Rae said Canada has struggled to deliver development work beyond reactive humanitarian funding that can empower Rohingya.

“It remains a challenge to work with the government of Bangladesh,” Rae said. “We just haven't seen this development happening at a pace that we think makes sense, and that requires some difficult conversations with the Bangladeshis and others.”

Rae said Bangladesh has banned Rohingya from operating food carts in the camp and from leaving the camp for work.

“In the end, there will be people who have nothing but time on their hands,” he said.

“I mean, it’s not that complicated.”

Bangladesh's High Commission in Ottawa issued a lengthy statement noting that it is the largest donor to Rohingya refugees, including primary education. The mission noted that the sudden influx of Rohingya workers working illegally has damaged the local economy and depressed wages.

“Rohingya are engaged in skills development activities in the camps to facilitate their reintegration into their ancestral society upon their voluntary return,” part of the statement said.

“However, the prospect of allowing Rohingya to study within the Bangladesh national curriculum or to participate in broader economic activities outside the camps in Cox's Bazar will have a negative impact on the local host community.”

Nickerson said Bangladesh had not received sufficient support from world governments to care for refugees or find a lasting solution to the crisis, which was evolving into “a larger and more complex emergency.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2024.