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As Canada renews strategy for Rohingya crisis, advocates urge rethink

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 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

Warning: This article contains graphic content that may be disturbing to readers. Discretion is advised.

As Canada's strategy for supporting Rohingya people expires, advocates are calling for a rethink of how Ottawa is trying to limit suffering in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and to rout the military junta overseeing ethnic violence in Myanmar.

"We cannot turn away from this," said Bob Rae, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations.

In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Rae as a special envoy to Myanmar, following brazen violence by Buddhist extremists against their Muslim neighbours, the Rohingya. Human rights groups say the country’s military killed, raped and burned entire villages.

The crisis has forced nearly one million Rohingya people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they languish in a crowded camp. Rae issued a report on the crisis, which led Canada to launch a strategy in 2018.

Ottawa appointed Rae to the UN in 2020, and Myanmar's military led a 2021 coup d'état against its fledgling democratic government.

The military junta has overseen increasing ethnic conflict in Myanmar, which Rae called "more calamitous by the hour.”

Across the border in Bangladesh sits the world's largest refugee camp in the town of Cox's Bazar, which Jason Nickerson, an Ottawa-based Doctors Without Borders representative, visited in February.

"The camp itself is quite a miserable and also volatile place," he said. "It's surrounded by a chain-linked fence and people don't have the legal ability to leave and pursue employment."

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

"A lot of the world moved on, in terms of donor funding and donor interest, and so services are decreasing," Nickerson said.

"The conditions in the camp in Bangladesh are objectively and demonstrably worse, when we look at public health indicators and the kinds of medical needs that we're seeing in our clinics."

Nickerson was worried to see no mention in last month's federal budget of Rohingya, particularly because Ottawa had launched a second phase of its Rohingya strategy in 2021 that ended March 31 of this year.

"Canada really exerted some leadership and a commitment to the Rohingya people in responding to this major humanitarian emergency over multiple years, and I think it's really insufficient to just leave it hanging," he said.

Global Affairs Canada would not say whether a third phase was in the works, though Rae said "there will definitely be a next phase, there's no question. The work is ongoing."

The conflict has largely faded from the news cycle, eclipsed by crises elsewhere. But Rae insists it's a frequent topic at UN headquarters, where he leads a multi-nation working group on Myanmar.

"It's just a matter of everybody figuring out what can be done about it, and that's where I think our collective efforts are still falling short."

He said Canada has a "substantial and multi-dimensional" response to the crisis, such as joining the Netherlands in looking at accountability through international courts for the military junta.

Myanmar is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member bloc that Rae says has tried hard to diplomatically engage with the regime but hasn't been able to nudge it away from violence.

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

"The junta has the de facto support of the government of China, and the very active military support of the government of Russia," he said. "That polarization of support has become even clearer."

Rae said countries like Canada need to do anything possible to establish a democratic government through elections in Myanmar. "That's the only way that we're going to get a process of repatriation of the Rohingya to take place."

He noted general humanitarian monies in this spring's budget and the Indo-Pacific strategy can foster efforts for Rohingya people, on top of the $600 million that Canada has provided in response to the Rohingya crisis since 2017.

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

"Canada is not using all the tools it has under its sleeves," said Ealom, who fled Myanmar in 2013.

Rae had called for a senior civil servant to co-ordinate responses from all federal departments and report publicly, which Ealom laments never happened.

He said Canada has largely been writing cheques to large, multilateral organizations, who he says are often slow to respond and have difficulty getting unrestricted access to Rohingya in the camp. He said that’s an issue because Bangladeshi officials oversee some of the delivery of aid, and so Rohingya are unlikely to point out problems with the camp in front of people from Bangladeshi organizations.

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

He said Rohingya welcome Canadian-funded projects to provide early-childhood education, but there is little to help young adults attain academic credentials that would help them pursue higher education. Ealom said the absence of opportunities or prospects of being resettled abroad are contributing to a problem of 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 reassess its strategy based on what's actually working.

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

"It continues to be challenging to engage with the government of Bangladesh," Rae said. "We simply haven't seen that evolution at a pace that we think would make sense, and that involves some difficult conversations with the Bangladeshis and with others."

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

"You're going to end up having people with nothing but time on their hands," he said.

"I mean, this is not that complicated."

Bangladesh's high commission in Ottawa provided a lengthy statement, noting it's the largest funder for Rohingya refugees, including for primary education. The mission noted that the sudden onslaught of Rohingya people working illegally has hurt the local economy and driven down wages.

"Rohingya are engaged in skill-development activities within the camps, designed to facilitate their reintegration into their ancestral society upon voluntary return," reads part of the statement.

"However, the prospect of allowing Rohingya to study in the national curriculum of Bangladesh or to participate in broader economic activities outside the camps in Cox's Bazar will adversely impact the local host community."

Nickerson said Bangladesh hasn't been adequately supported by global governments in looking after refugees or finding a durable solution to the crisis, which is morphing into "a larger and more complex emergency."

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

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