The Rohingya Crisis: A Call for International Action and Canada’s Leadership in Resettlement

Although faced with genocide few Rohingya refugees are now in Canada

By: /
25 May, 2023
A fishing boat on the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh. Seeking safety in Bangladesh, desperate Rohingya have often drowned in its vast and deep waters. Photo by: Ahmad Salahuddin/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 A fishing boat on the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh. Seeking safety in Bangladesh, desperate Rohingya have often drowned in its vast and deep waters. Photo by: Ahmad Salahuddin/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
John Jonaid
By: John Jonaid
Journalist and human rights activist

Despite continuing efforts by the international community to alleviate their situation, the Rohingya people remain in a state of constant crisis in Bangladesh, having fled the ongoing genocide against them in Rakhine state, Myanmar. They are effectively stateless and have settled in to what is now one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with nearly one million people residing in Bangladesh. As I have previously written in Open Canada, the international community has largely failed to address the situation, leaving the Rohingya to often fend for themselves.

“We are dying here, but the world does not care for us. It’s like hell here. Many people are dying,” Ro Ziya Bol Hoson, a 28-year-old Rohingya teacher in a Bangladesh camp told me recently. “We don’t have enough food to feed our families. Many children suffer from various diseases, and we don’t have access to proper medical help.”  He fled from Rakhine state after the military burned down his home in 2017 when they launched a crackdown on the Rohingya. 

The Rohingya, a minority Muslim ethnic group from Myanmar, have been subjected to generational persecution and discrimination based on their culture, appearance, and religion for decades. In 1982, the Myanmar government revoked their citizenship status, rendering them stateless, since they have no other country to call home. They have also been denied most of their basic human rights, including freedom of movement and access to employment.

“I don’t even know what my human rights are in Myanmar,” continued Ro Ziya. “I was not even sure if I was ever treated as a human being. I was called an illegal immigrant in my own land. I could not even travel within my own country, nor can I apply for a job. All I can recall is the hatred and discrimination against us.”  

Since 2017, the military government has launched several violent campaigns against the Rohingya, resulting in the deaths of thousands and forcing almost 70 percent of their population of 3.1 million to flee their homes. Many have fled to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh where they remain stranded. These actions are widely considered by the international community to be a form of ethnic cleansing.

Nor are the Rohingya safe in Bangladesh. They face unimaginable challenges, including limited access to healthcare, while also being denied the right to work and provide for their families. Moreover, they receive no government protection.  The situation has been compounded by rampant human trafficking, with children being kidnapped and women sold into prostitution. Others have been killed for their organs by local gangs.

“Our women are being raped and kidnapped by locals, and many men and children are disappearing. We are facing another massacre here. We have nowhere else to go,” added another Rohingya I spoke to who requested to be unnamed due to fear of being killed by gang members. 

While diplomatic efforts, international aid and legal action are ongoing to assist the Rohingya, the path to a sustainable solution remains uncertain as Myanmar’s military government refuses to reverse course and recognize them as citizens. While many countries offer resettlement options to some vulnerable refugees it has not been near enough. For example, although Canada was the first country to resettle Rohingya from refugee camps in Bangladesh between 2006 to 2010 only some 300 arrived in Canada.

Saifullah Muhammad, co-founder of the Rohingya Centre of Canada located in Kitchener, Ontario, argues that Canada can and should do more to help the Rohingya, and take a leadership role in their resettlement.

Canada has made several efforts to admit limited numbers of Rohingyas in the past, but Bangladesh refused to issue exit permits. However, Saifullah noted recently that Bangladesh has opened the door for resettlement and the “UNHCR has taken the initiative to play the role of a catalyst in making this happen with the support of the government. In coordination with the sponsoring states, it has solicited multi-year pledges for refugee resettlement in third countries.” 

In June 2022, the Canadian government announced a new phase to respond to the Rohingya crisis, allocating an additional $15.3 million for life-saving and gender-responsive humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and $10.3 million in Myanmar in 2022.  However, there was no indication that Canada planned to bring anyone to Canada.  Stephen Watt, a refugee advocate and co-founder of Northern Lights Canada suggests that Canada could respond similarly to the Rohingya crisis as it did for more than 167,585 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Canada since Russia’s 2022 invasion and the large number of Syrian refugees who came to Canada in 2016 and 2017.  “Canada needs to step up and bring them to this country at a comparable scale,” Stephen noted.  Indeed, as Saifullah noted last year, only around 1,000 Rohingya refugees have been resettled in Canada since 2006.

Furthermore, the situation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh’s camps continues to deteriorate. A recent cyclone, Mocha, left their plastic and bamboo homes relatively scattered and many now lack a roof to sleep under. However, there is hope, which lies in Canada’s capacity to help effectively address the Rohingya crisis.

For example, with the 8th largest economy in the world and a welcoming refugee policy, Canada is well positioned to increase the number of Rohingya refugees it accepts for resettlement. Such a move would surely inspire other nations to take similar action. Additionally, Canada should allocate more funding for humanitarian aid and leverage its diplomatic influence to form a coalition to pressure the Myanmar government to recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. This includes ensuring their safe return to their homes in Rakhine and the restoration of their land and properties confiscated by the military government.

As Saifullah noted when we recently spoke, “accepting Rohingya refugees is a diplomatic success for Canada and a benefit for the communities that host them. Resettling refugees improves both our country’s security and its moral leadership in the world.”

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