Brian Gorlick is an instructor in refugee protection and forced migration studies at the University of London, and has more than 25 years of experience working for the United Nations Secretariat and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has increased restrictions on freedom of movement and access to employment, health services and education for refugees around the world. For the almost one million Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh, their reality is more challenging than ever, with the first cases and deaths related to the novel coronavirus having been reported in these communities. While the Rohingya crisis has remained a priority for the international community since it began almost three years ago, no one knows how long that prioritization will last. In desperation, some Rohingya have opted to make a dangerous journey by boat to seek better prospects.
The Bangladesh government has generously permitted the Rohingya to seek asylum. By doing so, countless lives were saved, but the refugee camps are overcrowded and located on a hilly topography along a common path for cyclones. While heroic humanitarian work continues, long-term encampment is no solution.
The primary “solution” to the crisis supported by Bangladesh, the United Nations and other states and actors, is to return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, a country they fled after experiencing unspeakable crimes and human-rights violations. For the few hundred thousand Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, life is precarious, with continuing reports of targeted violence and discrimination.
While a tripartite return agreement was previously signed by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar with the UN High Commission for Refugees (without consulting the refugee community), many Rohingya are unwilling and afraid to return to Myanmar unless there is a commitment to international monitoring of their physical safety, protection of their rights and granting of Myanmar citizenship. In addition to being refugees, the Rohingya are stateless.
Continuing processes involving the state of Myanmar and its senior officials before the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court will take years to conclude. Indeed, international justice efforts may aggravate the possibility of return as long as the same officials remain in power. Even in the unlikely event of regime change, many Rohingya may be exempt from having to return to Myanmar under international law given the atrocities they experienced.
The UN Security Council is unable to resolve the crisis. China, a strong supporter of the Myanmar regime and member of the Security Council, will not permit it. Even if Canada’s bid to join the council succeeds, as a non-permanent member, it would struggle to influence the body’s entrenched power dynamics. UN agencies working in Myanmar are similarly hamstrung with limited mobility in monitoring the situation, delivering assistance and brokering a solution with the Myanmar junta. It is time to rethink how the Rohingya will be able to move forward.
Despite the challenges, Canada can show leadership. The reappointment of Bob Rae as a special envoy to Myanmar has global impact. Mr. Rae’s 2018 Tell Them We’re Human report, which detailed the situation of Rohingya refugees globally, recommended that “Canada should signal a willingness to welcome refugees from the Rohingya community in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, and should encourage a discussion among like-minded countries to do the same."
Canada’s generosity toward refugees through resettlement is legendary. The government’s commitment to promoting justice for the Rohingya must include the resettlement of those most in need. While Canada is willing to receive some Rohingya, the Bangladesh government has to permit this to happen.
Resettling close to a million refugees is impossible, but everyone benefiting from this durable solution can build future Rohingya leadership and safeguard the community. An estimated 1,000 Rohingya live in Canada, with thousands more in the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Japan. A few hundred thousand reside in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India and the Persian Gulf.
Consistent with the aspirations of the Global Compact on Refugees, approved by the UN General Assembly, global governments need to counter growing anti-refugee rhetoric and grant the Rohingya legal stay with work rights, access to health care and education. Similar to the efforts made decades ago during the Indochinese “boat crisis" – wherein hundreds of thousands of people fled from Vietnam and surrounding countries – authorities should adopt a managed migration scheme, which would include rescue at sea and help for the movement of some refugees out of the camps near the town of Cox’s Bazar, to help ease the pressure on Bangladesh.
Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and some Gulf states have long benefited from Rohingya labour; the Rohingya significantly contribute to domestic economies. Refugees who work also provide lifesaving remittances to relatives and friends. Countries playing host to ethnic Rohingya can afford to welcome more of them, and other countries should make the effort to step up and assist.
Some resettled refugees, such as Yasmin Ullah, a social justice activist and president of the Rohingya Refugee Rights Network, are now proud Canadian citizens. Ms. Ullah was a refugee for several years in Thailand before she had the chance to come to Canada. While completing her bachelor’s degree in political science, Ms. Ullah works tirelessly for her community in Canada and globally.
The Rohingya need more people like Ms. Ullah. Not only in the camps in Bangladesh and refugee communities in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Aceh, but in societies like Canada, which can offer help and solutions – solutions the Rohingya desperately need and rightfully deserve, including, hopefully, the opportunity to go home.
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