By Saifullah Muhammad
Toronto – While well-established public healthcare systems in countries of the Global North are struggling to manage the volume of COVID-19 patients, as well as its secondary effects on all facets of society, countries of the Global South have additional unique considerations that impact how they cope, especially those that host large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Since the late 1970s, policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s forces has resulted in five separate waves of mass exodus by the country’s Rohingya minority. Over time, the international community–including Canada and the United Nations–has been outspoken about not forcing these Rohingya survivors of genocide back into the same conditions they fled.
Many of these Rohingya migrants fled to nearby Bangladesh, prompting the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to put forward a 3-point proposal regarding the crisis. These proposals address the root of the problem faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar and point to issues that must be resolved before any repatriation process can begin. First, she proposed ending discriminatory laws against the Rohingya, along with the reinstatement of full citizenship for them. Secondly, Myanmar needs to prove that the Rohingya will not face the same violent persecution if they return to their homeland. That means (for starters) the establishment of an internationally protected safe-zone. In the same vein, all Rohingya concentration camps must be closed and all Rohingya who haven’t left Myanmar must be allowed to return to their homes. Finally, there must be accountability for the crimes committed, as impunity can only lead to more violence.
People understand the immense pressure Bangladesh faces as the host of approximately 1 million Rohingya genocide survivors. The international community needs to continue to support Bangladesh, so she does not bear this immense burden alone. Real, tangible solutions are needed to make sure that a sixth exodus of the Rohingya out of Myanmar–their ancestral homeland–doesn’t happen. Moreover, such measures must be instilled to prevent the worst outcome of all: the completion of the Rohingya genocide by Myanmar’s forces.
“We cannot send genocide survivors back under the control of the same regime that is persecuting them,” said Ahmed Ramadan, Executive Director of Burma Task Force.
“There are over 100,000 Rohingya still living in concentration camps in Myanmar since 2012. How can we force back a group of people that have experienced so much pain and suffering when there are still Rohingya living in these camps inside of Myanmar without any rights or freedom?” Ramadan added.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has agreed to assess the voluntary nature of the possible repatriation of some Rohingya survivors back to Myanmar from Bangladesh. We were advised that the Bangladeshi army has entered Rohingya camps to interview families. This has sparked fear and terror in the refugee camps. Some fled into hiding, while others have attempted suicide.
Canada is on the executive committee of the UNHCR and is their 8th largest donor. Canada needs to use its relationship with Bangladesh and other countries in the region to stop any refoulement until safe conditions are met. Canada needs to act.
“In the absence of adequate measures ensuring the life, liberty, security and dignity of Rohingya people, forcing them to return to the concentration camps in Myanmar would expose Bangladesh to significant liability and may make complicit to the crimes of Myanmar regime,” said Washim Ahmed, the spokesperson of Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative.
“Bangladeshi authorities must keep in mind that unlike Myanmar, Bangladesh is a signatory to Rome Statute, which makes it subject to the ICC’s jurisdiction. Bangladesh must not haste and should try to solve the problem instead of pushing the Rohingyas back to an ongoing genocide zone.”
The author is a freelance journalist based in Canada and completing his Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict at the University of Waterloo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org