When more than half a million Rohingya fled their villages in Myanmar last year and crossed into Bangladesh by foot and by boat, Anwar Arkani’s three sisters were among them.
Arkani, who came to Canada in 1998 after living as a refugee for a decade in Bangladesh and Thailand, knows that the situation for Rohingya in refugee camps and shelters is bleak. He saw that firsthand when he visited one of those camps last fall to distribute food.
But for his sisters and their children, the prospect of returning to Myanmar is even worse.
“My sister’s daughter says she will take poison if she has to go back,” Arkani said. “There is no absolute guarantee that they will be safe, they would rather die here.”
Arkani, who is the president of the Rohingya Association of Canada, is one of the approximately 300 Rohingya Muslims living in Canada today – a close-knit community that is deeply concerned about the safety of their relatives in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982 despite centuries-old roots in the country’s Rakhine state, rendering them stateless.
The current crisis in Myanmar has been described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by United Nations human-rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Myanmar has denied these allegations.
The most recent violence in Rakhine state began in August, 2017, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base. Myanmar’s military responded with a violent crackdown, triggering an exodus of Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Last month, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, released a report urging the federal government to lead an international effort to investigate “clear evidence” of crimes against humanity. He issued a series of recommendations, including urging Canada to “signal a willingness” to welcome Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh. He also called for $150-million in Canadian funding over four years.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland toured the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in Bangladesh last week, decrying the atrocities committed against Rohingya people and pledging a “strong commitment” from the Canadian government. But she did not announce any new money as recommended by Rae.
The Bangladeshi government reached an agreement last fall with Myanmar that will see the return of more than 500,000 refugees to Rakhine state. The aim of this deal was to repatriate all the refugees to Myanmar within two years.
In January, that repatriation was postponed amid fears that refugees would be forced to return against their will. It is still unclear when a new return date will be set.
Gloria Nafzinger, a refugee-rights and country campaigner with Amnesty International Canada, said current conditions in Myanmar are not conducive to repatriation. The underlying issues causing displacement, such as lack of citizenship rights and access to health care and education, need to be addressed first, Ms. Nafzinger said.
“We continue to see people fleeing the region to this day,” she said.
“There’s no question that they cannot be guaranteed any kind of safety and life living in dignity with opportunity for livelihood at this point in time.”
Instead, she said the Canadian government should consider creating a family-reunification program for Canadian Rohingya who have family in Bangladesh, Myanmar or other countries.
“Canada could and should be looking into family-linked cases of refugees, people who have families that they could sponsor and look for better ways for reunification of families who have been separated,” Ms. Nafzinger said.
Rae’s report made 17 recommendations, including that Canada should welcome Rohingya refugees and encourage other countries to do so.
His report also called on Canada to establish an independent investigation into the violence while also investing more than half a billion dollars in humanitarian and development efforts in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations refugee agency’s representative in Canada, said at the time that resettlement is not a priority for the Rohingya, as most want to eventually return to Myanmar when it is safe for them to do so.
While Canada became the first country to resettle members of the long-persecuted ethnic-minority group between 2006 and 2010, the federal government has said there are currently no plans to resettle Rohingya refugees.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has previously said Canada cannot resettle any of the Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh because the country does not issue exit visas to Rohingya refugees. In January, an assistant to Hussen said current discussions are focused on assessing prospects for the return of the refugees to Myanmar. He added that resettlement of the Rohingya is not an option right now as Canada supports the secure return of the refugees to their homes with full political and social rights.
Arkani says the Canadian government should look into bringing in Rohingya refugees living in limbo within refugee camps in countries where exit visas are not an issue.
“They can bring Rohingya refugees from India, they can bring refugees from Thailand, from Indonesia and Malaysia.”