Bob Rae is the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations and most recently the author of What’s Happened to Politics and Tell Them We’re Human.
My appointment as a special envoy to the Prime Minister on the Rohingya crisis in 2017 brought the connection between our global and domestic challenges home to me in a very direct way.
In November, 2017, after a one-hour drive from the airport at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, I arrived at a landscape of trees and hills that just a few short weeks earlier had been transformed into a refugee camp for close to a million people. The Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority in northwestern Myanmar, had been chased out of their homes and villages and had crossed the border into southeastern Bangladesh after genocidal attacks by the Myanmar army (known as the Tatmadaw). For the next few months, I would interview dozens of people in crisis to understand what Canada might do to address their displacement, and to tell their stories.
The title of my report to the Prime Minister, Tell Them We’re Human, arose from a conversation I had with a refugee leader – later killed in a violent altercation in the Cox’s Bazar camp – who tearfully shared how it was his family’s dignity and humanity that was being lost in the maelstrom. The Rohingya have now joined the long list of people whose identity and right to exist have been denied by an angry majority, and who have been subject to hatred, humiliation and violence, leaving deep scars that the global community has not been able to respond to.
Looking broadly at human history, the premise that migration and movement is an exceptional state of being is in fact quite wrong. From the time we began standing on two legs, human life has been shaped by emigration, conflict and change. It is no different today, but while broad economic and technological factors have produced a positive demand for movement and migration for many people, violence and conflict have also led to the fastest growth in the global number of refugees since the Second World War.
There are powerful forces at work that make movement more possible and necessary than ever before – changing values, wider horizons, breakdowns in traditional property ownership or power structures, population growth, climate change, ethnic and political conflict – the list goes on.
Our changing climate, in particular, is set to become a new norm in the displacement of people. A recent United Nations report from Afghanistan tells us that over the past several years more than a million people have been driven from their homes because of natural disasters. Afghanistan’s worst drought in decades is now in its second year and has deeply exacerbated the country’s food crisis, leaving 95 per cent of Afghans without enough food and nine million at risk of starvation. As is often the case, the drought has been followed by massive flooding.
COVID-19 has been another huge contributor to our current challenges. In developed countries, it has isolated citizens in their homes, made them more insecure in their jobs and has led to increased demands for governments to solve the crisis. This understandable demand from the public has, in turn, put democratic governments in a position where helping at home comes first. This means that the international response to the global health crisis has been insufficient, leaving many countries feeling abandoned by those countries whose focus has been more on their own fate than that of others. As in so many situations, the vacuum gets filled by others, such as China and Russia, who are only too ready to spread their influence.
Most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been marked by the features of a classic genocide: a refusal to accept the realities of Ukraine’s nationhood, language and culture; a misplaced confidence that might makes right; a complete rejection of humanitarian and rule-of-law norms that have been built up steadily over the past two centuries; and a willingness to use brute force to subdue and oppress. Millions of Ukrainians have already been forcibly moved across international borders and another seven million have been displaced from their homes. All this in just three months.
But Ukraine is not unique. The rapid, collective response from Western countries to this latest crisis has led to some questions about those suffering in the refugee camps of Colombia, the Sahel, East Africa, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and beyond. Have we created different standards of response to competing situations? Avoiding that charge will require many countries, including Canada, to make sure we are adjusting quickly enough to the full extent of what is now a global crisis of displacement.
We all know that responding to these multiple, overlapping and complex crises is not easy. It will require, in equal measure, imagination, compassion and, above all, execution. We have, thank goodness, moved well past the times of Canada’s official response to Jewish refugees during the Second World War – that “none is too many.”
Indeed, in comparison with many other countries, we are leaders in the field of refugee acceptance and immigrant integration. But the world we are moving toward is still contested, up for grabs. We have important choices to make in shaping the future.
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