Canadian Response to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

by Gloria Nafziger, Campaigner, Refugees and Migrants, Amnesty International Canada

The outpouring of compassion and concern from Amnesty International supporters in Canada to the crisis in Myanmar has been truly amazing. Thank you to all who are helping keep our crisis team on the ground through your financial support and who are helping us put pressure on authorities in Myanmar.

As I write this, over 400,000 Rohingya refugees have been chased from their homes and villages by military forces since the 25th of August. Their villages have been burned to the ground, women and children were shot at as they fled their homes. And even as they fled, encountered internationally banned land mines, planted by the Myanmar Army on well-trodden paths leading into Bangladesh. More than 250,000 messages have been signed from Amnesty International members around world, calling on the Myanmar military to immediately end its campaign of violence and ethnic cleansing.

The support of Amnesty International members is keeping our researchers on the ground in Bangladesh interviewing refugees as they arrive and gathering first hand evidence. Our research is clearly showing the atrocities as crimes against humanity. 

>> Watch CBC’s The National interview with one of our researchers currently on the ground, Matthew Wells (Twitter: @mattfwells), September 28, 2017:

The Amnesty research team, led by my colleagues Tirana Hussan and Elise Tillet, have heard shocking first-hand accounts of brutal attacks on Rohingya for nothing more than their ethnicity and religion. Our crisis response team is documenting evidence of human rights violations and has obtained satellite imagery showing the razing of villages. They have heard about thousands of other Rohingya who have not been able to flee and remain trapped in isolated villages within Rakhine State. These villages are completely off limits to human rights observers, making verifying what is actually happening very difficult. The military is willfully denying access to the region and the delivery of critical humanitarian aid.

Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar are treated with blatant discrimination and have been living in deplorable conditions long before the current rounds of violence began. Essentially segregated from the rest of the population, they cannot freely move, and have limited access to medical care, schools or jobs. They are effectively denied citizenship and the rights that come with it. Waves of violence have also left tens of thousands trapped in camps which the government does not allow them to leave.

It is essential that Myanmar’s authorities address both the current situation and its root causes. A first step should be to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission for Rakhine State, led by Kofi Annan, which are aimed at improving their human rights. The authorities must also cooperate with the UN Fact-Finding Mission established to investigate allegations of abuses and allow it to enter the country.

Amnesty International continues to call for an immediate end to the Myanmar military’s campaign of violence and human-rights violations against the civilian Rohingya population. We join hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are calling on the military to immediately allow humanitarian organizations full and unfettered access to all parts of the state to assist people in need.

We have sent messages to the head of the military; so many that the fax number was taken off line. We have reverted to traditional mail and priority courier to get our messages from around the world delivered. We continue to use twitter to call out General Min Aung Hlaing and encourage others to do the same. We have also called on the Myanmar ambassador in Canada to communicate our concerns to authorities in his country and on the Government of Canada to pro-actively respond through all diplomatic channels open to them.

Canada has responded. Minister Bibeau, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, announced a further $2.55 million in funding to help address the humanitarian crisis.

This aid is urgently needed as Bangladesh is overwhelmed and expected to host hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence. More refugees entered Bangladesh in the span of three weeks than the total number of refugees who fled by sea to Europe in 2016. Bangladesh has not closed its borders to these refugees; but many European countries resist providing similar hospitality. And in Canada the entry just over 5,500 refugees from all destinations in the month of August is described by some as a “crisis”.

Leadership from Canada is critical as the worldwide situation for refugees goes from bad to worse; as rich countries fail to do their part in addressing the refugee crisis, leaving poorer countries to pick up the pieces.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, September 27, Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary General, Alex Neve, joined partner organizations to share our recommendations at a special Senate Human Rights Committee hearing on the crisis (watch the full video here; Amnesty International’s statement begins at 1:35:26).

.@AmnestyNow Joins @Inter_Pares @HRWcanada @BurmaTFCanada & Rohingya Assoc of Cda at Senate HR Cttee: options for Canada re: #RohingyaCrisis

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has also called on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader to use her moral and political authority to condemn the violence, and he expressed profound surprise, disappointment and dismay at her continuing silence in the face of the brutal oppression of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim people.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s response, as a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and an Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience has been deeply disappointing. Her September 19th address to the United Nations General Assembly demonstrated that she and her government are burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State. Myanmar has repeatedly said it will not co-operate with the UN-mandated Fact Finding Mission established earlier this year. This campaign of violence can only end when the government begins to address the entrenched discrimination that has left Rohingya trapped in a cycle of abuse and deprivation for decades. Aung San Suu Kyi should lead the way.

Amnesty International fears that history may be repeating itself in Myanmar in the worst possible way. In late 2016, Myanmar’s military launched an unlawful and completely disproportionate scorched-earth campaign after similar, albeit smaller, attacks on its security forces took place. People were killed, raped and tortured and whole villages were burned down in what may have amounted to crimes against humanity. Today we are seeing similar patterns.

Amnesty International will continue to document, and report on the crisis in Myanmar and use the full force of our movement to press the Myanmar authorities for change. 

It is essential that Amnesty remain a powerful voice in the protection of refugees and migrants, and that we continue to hold all states accountable for their treatment of the most vulnerable.

Thank you for being a part of this call, and I know that you will continue to shout out for a world which is free and safe for all.

Gloria Nafziger, Refugees and Migrants Campaigner

Gloria Nafziger, Refugees and Migrants Campaigner