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A Rohingya refugee’s flight to Canada

How Canada’s sponsorship model helped one Rohingya writer escape genocide and purgatory

By: /
23 February, 2022
The author with his Canadian sponsors shortly after arriving in Toronto. Photo submitted.

On September 30, 2021, I landed in Toronto, Canada.  For the first time in my life, I felt freedom and experienced the goodness of the world when a group of kind Canadians welcomed me at the airport.  They wrapped a Canadian flag around me and gave me a hat with a maple leaf on it and said “welcome home.” I later learned that day happened to be Canada’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. I also happen to be a survivor of genocide, but in Myanmar, and a survivor of the inhumane treatment I faced as a refugee in Indonesia.   

In Myanmar, as a member of the Rohingya minority, I was considered an illegal immigrant and was denied my right to citizenship; I could not travel even within my own country. Most of my basic rights were denied.  In 2013, when the Myanmar government incited a massacre of the Rohingya, I was doing my second year in physics at Sittwe University in the capital city of Rakhine state, where nearly a thousand Rohingya were killed by both Rakhine vigilantes and the military.  I was forced to leave my country and sought refuge in Australia as it was a signatory of the 1951 UN refugee convention promising to protect the displaced.  

I then risked my life crossing borders from Thailand, Malaysia to Indonesia illegally as I was not allowed to hold a passport. However, I faced a terrible situation in Indonesia; Australia, the country where I expected to find refuge and peace, made me a hostage of its deterrence policy. 

In mid-2013, I got on a boat with 50 other asylum seekers and sailed for one night in an attempt to reach Australia. However, we could not make it as we were arrested before we reached the land.  We were locked in hotel rooms for 24 hours in Jakarta. 

One night, with some other Rohingyas, I tried to escape from the hotel through the window of the toilet. We were crawling on the roof of the neighbour’s house next to the hotel, but suddenly, Kolimullah, a 21-year-old Rohingya and one of the refugees escaping from the hotel, fell from the roof.  He was beaten by the locals; they then handed him to an immigration officer who beat him again. Later at the hospital, he died.  We were beaten and locked up again. After three months, some of us were transferred to an actual detention centre in south Sulawesi, Manado.  

When I arrived at the detention center, I was shocked to see hundreds more refugees from different countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq, and many others who had been detained for four or five years or more as they attempted to reach Australia. In May 2015, after writing many emails to agencies and organizations, I was lucky enough to be released. I didn’t know at the time this ‘release’ was just a simple transfer to an open prison, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) community house in Makassar.

In the IOM accommodation, I was kept under surveillance by security forces 24 hours a day. We could not go 20 kilometers away from our accommodation, nor could we spend the night out. Curfew was from 10 pm to six am. These policies were applied with sanctions to ensure refugees who violated the rules were returned to detention. A sign at the gate warned locals to keep their distance from refugees and ensured we remained isolated from the rest of Indonesian society. Even love was forbidden and we were not allowed to maintain any romantic relationships with locals. 

In 2013, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, implemented a sovereign border operation and announced that refugees who had arrived or attempted to arrive by boat after July 2013 would no longer be settled in Australia and would be detained or deported. The intent of Australian border policies is to arrest and detain refugees and keep them marooned in Indonesia until they accept voluntary repatriation; thus, stopping them from going to Australia by boat.

As a Rohingya, it was impossible to return to Myanmar as the genocide against my people was still ongoing – by 2018 over a million had fled to Bangladesh. On the other hand,  Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 UN refugee convention and denied refugees local integration and basic rights. Thus, I was unable to rebuild my life in Indonesia. I was not allowed to work, study or travel even within the country. My UNHCR card is not acceptable at any government agency or for simple things such as opening a bank account. 

My only hope was for UNHCR to help me resettle in third countries such as the U.S. and Canada. For five years I did not see any sign of hope. In 2017, we refugees carried out our first protest of around 50 people right in front of the UNHCR office in Makassar. We demanded resettlement to a third country and continued protesting on and off, but to no avail.  Many of my fellow refugees were arrested. 

I became a key target of the police as I was leading the protests and exposing our situation in international media including Al Jazeera and BBC Indonesia and many more in Australia and others. As I was slowly being recognized as a journalist and an activist, my life became more difficult. Police and immigration authorities threatened me with detention or imprisonment if I did not stop my activism and writing.  

I happen to be a survivor of genocide, but in Myanmar, and a survivor of the inhumane treatment I faced as a refugee in Indonesia.   

In late 2019, a government spokesperson called a meeting with me and other refugee activists at the GAHARA hotel in Makassar. He asked “What do refugees from Indonesia want?”  I replied: “We are human beings and we need our human  rights.” He told us that Indonesia is not a signatory country to the UN refugee convention, and so was not obliged to uphold refugees’ rights. He offered us a choice: either the status quo or we have to leave the country. He warned us of harsh measures if the protests continue.

I was told I could not remain in Indonesia if I continued to protest and write about immigration and the government.  I planned to escape to Malaysia, but this would have required me to pay around $2,000, which I did not have.

By 2020, the only option I had was either to go back to my country or be detained. It was at that moment that my friend, Stephen Watt, a Canadian refugee advocate and co-founder of  Northern Lights Canada, contacted me and said, “I have found some sponsors for you in Canada.”  I felt relieved and was able to dream about my future again, but it would be at least one year before I could resettle in Canada, and I was not safe in my current situation. 

In February 2021, I went out with an Indonesian friend, but I was late returning to the accommodation, which had already been locked. We decided to stay at a hotel for the night, but I was detained and taken to an unknown location by plainclothes officers at midnight. They interrogated me for two hours, dropped me off at my accommodation, and told me to prepare my belongings, because immigration officers would come to take me to detention in the morning. I quickly booked a flight online and escaped to Jakarta’s capital. I was cut off from IOM facilities and had to fend for myself.  It wasn’t easy, but my writing and overseas friends somehow helped me survive.  Finally, I got a call that my flight to Canada was scheduled for 29 September 2021. 

Today, thanks to Canada and those kind Canadians I  have a chance for a second life.  However, there are still nearly 14,000 refugees stranded in Indonesia. I, therefore, take freedom as an opportunity to advocate more effectively for them and the refugees around the world. I strongly encourage Canadian and Australian citizens to join the change makers who are giving hope by sponsoring refugees in vulnerable positions. The UNHCR has reported that, typically, less than one percent of the 20.7 million refugees worldwide under UNHCR’s mandate are ever resettled. It is also possible that the Canadian model of community sponsorship for refugees may be adopted by other countries, an initiative that would greatly boost refugees’ hope for resettlement.

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