Canada’s Support for the Rohingyas: A Committed Response to Humanitarian Crisis

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In 2006, Canada resettled 10,651 refugees from over 60 different nationalities. The top five countries of origin were: Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Sudan. In 2007, Canada became the first nation to accept 23 Rohingyas for resettlement from camps in Bangladesh. Canada has consistently displayed its strong determination to support the Rohingyas since the beginning of their massive exodus from Myanmar in August 2017. In February 2023, Harjit S Sajjan, Canada’s Minister of International Development, reaffirmed the nation’s steadfast commitment to supporting Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya crisis. With a focus on Myanmar’s underlying issues, Canada stressed the urgency of creating a conducive environment for the safe return of Rohingya refugees. Since the 2017 crisis in Rakhine State, over 770,000 Rohingyas sought refuge in Bangladesh, highlighting the gravity of the situation. Amid Myanmar’s political turmoil and human rights abuses, Canada has vehemently condemned the military coup and extended support through targeted sanctions, diplomatic advocacy, and humanitarian aid. This multifaceted approach emphasizes Canada’s dedication to fostering long-term solutions and aiding affected populations.

Canada has taken a leading position in addressing the Rohingya crisis and the circumstances in Myanmar. In 2022, Canada pledged $288.3 million to aid the second stage of its plan to tackle the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh and the situation in Myanmar. Canada intends to persist in delivering global assistance to aid vulnerable populations and those affected by crises, including Rohingya refugees. In 2018, they provided financial support of $8.15 million.

In February 2021, a military coup in Myanmar ousted the democratically elected civilian government, plunging the nation into political turmoil. The coup and subsequent actions by the regime have triggered a countrywide humanitarian crisis, endangering the prospects of the safe, voluntary, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar. The military takeover in Myanmar has also deepened political and security crises and exacerbated human rights abuses throughout the country. Canada has strongly condemned the Myanmar military’s illegal seizure of power, its overthrow of the democratically elected government, and its detention of various individuals, including politicians, civil society leaders, journalists, peaceful protestors, and human rights defenders. Canada has consistently called for an immediate cessation of violence and for the military to engage in genuine and inclusive dialogue to resolve the crisis.

As mentioned earlier, in February 2023, Harjit S Sajjan, the Minister of International Development in Canada, expressed Canada’s unwavering commitment to being a strong partner for Bangladesh in addressing the Rohingya crisis. He emphasized their collaborative efforts to draw more international attention to the Rohingya issue, focusing not only on the immediate problem in Bangladesh but also on the underlying crisis in Myanmar. A key priority mentioned was the creation of a conducive environment within Myanmar to enable the safe return of Rohingya refugees to their homeland.

Canada stands in solidarity with the Rohingyas, advocating for a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic society. It has taken a clear stance on this issue, both through bilateral communication and international collaboration. Since the coup, Canada has actively participated in coordinated advocacy efforts at the United Nations (UN), G7, and other platforms to denounce the military’s actions and call for the immediate restoration of democratic governance. Canada has co-sponsored resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly, issued numerous ministerial statements, and played a vital role in advocating for international condemnation.

Canada has also expressed support for ASEAN’s involvement in Myanmar and urged Myanmar to implement the ASEAN Five Point Consensus, which outlines a roadmap to address the crisis. Additionally, Canada supports the UN’s initiatives in Myanmar, particularly those of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar. Canada is ready to collaborate with the UN Special Envoy to facilitate the safe, sustainable, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya asylum seekers.

They continue to call for a halt to the sale and transfer of arms, material, dual-use equipment, and technical assistance to Myanmar, with the aim of preventing the flow of military resources to the regime. Canada has also issued a business advisory on Myanmar, cautioning against the legal and reputational risks associated with business engagement in the country. Additionally, Canada has reviewed its international assistance program to ensure it does not benefit the military regime. Canada is actively supporting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists, and democratic actors at risk in Myanmar. Collaborative efforts with international partners and allies are ongoing to pursue long-term and durable solutions to the crisis.

They recognize that the coup in Myanmar has further complicated the situation for the Rohingya population, both inside Myanmar and in Bangladesh. The prospects for their safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable repatriation to Myanmar have become increasingly remote. Canada remains dedicated to creating the conditions for eventual repatriation and addressing the needs of Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh. Canada actively encourages the Rohingya community to define its own rights and needs, advocating for their rights and active participation in shaping their future.

In response to the crises, Canada has played a leadership role and has had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Previously, in 2018, Canada announced a 3-year strategy to address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Despite progress achieved from 2018 to 2021, significant challenges persist. Consequently, Canada has extended its strategy into a second 3-year phase, shifting the focus from crisis response to advancing durable solutions in Myanmar.

Canada continues to provide international assistance to meet the needs of at-risk and crisis-affected populations, particularly in Myanmar, where needs have increased due to the impact of COVID-19 and the military coup. These challenges disproportionately affect women and girls and risk undermining social cohesion. Balancing measures to contain the virus with service delivery remains a critical priority.

Access to food, healthcare, and protection remains essential for all at-risk and crisis-affected populations, including women and girls. Furthermore, long-term development assistance, such as education and skills training, is crucial for empowering youth and building their future.

Canada acknowledges the significant challenges Bangladesh faces in hosting a substantial Rohingya population and stands in solidarity with Bangladesh in addressing this situation. Canada is committed to empowering the Rohingya community to advocate for their own rights and needs. Canada also supports the human rights of the Rohingya wherever they reside, whether in Cox’s Bazar or on the Island of Bhasan Char.

Canada’s Response with Targeted Sanctions in Myanmar

Canada maintains a robust sanctions framework through the Special Economic Measures Act, in place since 2007. This framework plays a pivotal role in Canada’s response to the Rohingya crisis and the concurrent political and security turmoil in Myanmar. The nation remains committed to enhancing the efficacy of targeted sanctions and continuously assesses the necessity for additional actions, all while collaborating closely with like-minded international partners to ensure a unified and robust approach to sanctions.

In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed the Honorable Bob Rae as Special Envoy to Myanmar, a pivotal role in offering insights and recommendations for Canadian action. Canada’s targeted sanctions evolved over time, with key milestones including the addition of senior military officials to the sanctions list, such as those involved in the coup in Myanmar in February 2021, and the expansion of sanctions in May 2021 and December 2021, targeting individuals and entities linked to violence and the military regime’s actions. Further additions in January and March 2022 and subsequent updates in December 2022 and January 2023 addressed escalating violence and human rights violations, underscoring Canada’s resolute commitment to accountability and international collaboration in addressing these pressing issues.

Canada’s unwavering dedication to resolve the Rohingya crisis and the political turmoil in Myanmar reflects its commitment to upholding basic humanitarian causes and fostering global stability. Through diplomatic initiatives, targeted sanctions, and substantial humanitarian aid, Canada has taken proactive measures to address the plight of Rohingya refugees and support the efforts of Bangladesh. Despite the challenges posed by the Myanmar military’s actions and the exacerbation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada remains resolute in advocating for a peaceful and inclusive society in Myanmar. By extending its strategy to a second 3-year phase and emphasizing the importance of long-term solutions, Canada continues to prioritize the well-being and empowerment of affected populations, particularly women, girls, and youth, in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Canada maintain close cooperation and coordination in diplomatic arena to create pressure on Myanmar for the repatriation of the Rohingyas.

– Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the founder of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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