Proceeding of the Standing Senate Committee on
Issue No. 36 - Evidence - Meeting of November 21, 2018
OTTAWA, Wednesday, November 21, 2018
The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 11:35 a.m. to study issues relating to human rights and, inter alia, to review the machinery of government dealing with Canada’s international and national human rights obligations (topic: the human rights situation of the Rohingya; and, in camera, for the consideration of a draft agenda (future business).
Senator Jane Cordy (Deputy Chair) in the chair.
The Deputy Chair: Good morning and welcome. Before we hear from our witness, I would like all the senators to introduce themselves, beginning on my left.
Senator Hartling: Nancy Hartling, New Brunswick.
Senator Pate: Kim Pate, Ontario.
Senator Forest-Niesing: Josée Forest-Niesing, standing in for Senator Boyer.
Senator Andreychuk: Raynell Andreychuk, Saskatchewan.
The Deputy Chair: I’m Jane Cordy, deputy chair of the committee, and I’m chairing today’s meeting.
Since late August of 2017, over 725,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar, where they are a stateless Muslim minority. The vast majority of Rohingya refugees reaching Bangladesh are women and children, including newborn babies. Many others are elderly people requiring additional aid and protection.
During our last two hearings, our committee heard from the High Commissioner from Bangladesh, the Rohingya Human Rights Network, and from two legal experts. Today we continue our examination of the plight of the Rohingya refugees.
In our first session today, our witness is Matthew Smith, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights, an organization that investigates human rights violations. He is appearing today by video conference.
Honourable colleagues, you may remember that Mr. Smith appeared as a witness in October of 2017 on the same subject.
Just a reminder when we come to questions and answers. It is a video conference, and there will be a two- to three-second delay in transmission. When you ask your questions or you are waiting, keep that in mind.
Mr. Smith, you have the floor.
Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Fortify Rights: Thank you very much, distinguished senators, for organizing this hearing and for the opportunity to testify again. It’s a great honour and a privilege.
I’d like to first commend the Government of Canada for officially making a genocide determination with regard to the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar. In order to properly address any pattern of crimes, it’s absolutely essential to properly diagnosis those crimes, and the Canadian government took an important step in doing so.
Also, Canada’s targeted sanctions against a handful of perpetrators, as well as the very generous humanitarian support, was all duly noted by Rohingya communities as well as human rights organizations. Of course, the Government of Canada, as well as all of us, could and should do more. Again, I’m very thankful to be able to have this conversation with you.
I’d like to very briefly share some of our more recent findings from our last report, and I’m happy to provide a brief update on the situation in Myanmar, as well as Bangladesh, and to answer any questions that you may have.
The UN Office on Genocide Prevention has found that genocide and crimes against humanity are processes that take time to plan, coordinate and implement. These crimes do not occur spontaneously or as isolated events. They require resources, decisions by people in positions of power, and in many ways, that’s exactly what we’ve seen in Myanmar and what we’re still seeing now.
Following the most recent round of violence against the Rohingya last year, the dominant narrative suggested that Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar police, killing a dozen or so, and then the Myanmar military responded spontaneously, forcing the displacement of several hundred thousand, as the senator mentioned. But the authorities’ operations were not spontaneous. On July 19 we published a 160-page report called They Gave Them Long Swords, detailing how the Myanmar authorities made extensive and systematic preparations for attacks against Rohingya civilians during the weeks and months before the militant attacks on August 25.
We also found that those attacks constituted genocide and crimes against humanity. We identified 22 military and police officials who should be, in our view, criminally investigated and potentially prosecuted for international crimes. This is a list that includes Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, whom no government has sanctioned to date; Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice-Senior General Soe Win; and the Joint Chief of Staff, General Mya Tun Oo.
Many of you are no doubt aware of the scale, scope and nature of the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya. I won’t focus on that here, but I’m happy to share with you the extent of our documentation in that regard.
With regard to the situation in Bangladesh, there are now more than 1 million Rohingya refugees eking out a living in these sprawling camps. The Government of Bangladesh had proposed to send the vast majority of the Rohingya refugees, beginning with an initial group of 100,000, to the remote and flood-prone island of Bhashan Char. This is an ill-advised, dangerous idea; and if it is carried out, it will, of course, further violate the human rights of the Rohingya refugee population.
The authorities have also signed a bilateral agreement with the Government of Myanmar, so this is a bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh. This was brokered by China to return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
Needless to say, conditions in northern Rakhine State now are not conducive for safe or dignified refugee returns. Refugees continue, in fact, to cross the border into Bangladesh seeking safety — in much smaller numbers, of course — but in Myanmar, Rohingya are still living in apartheid conditions. They have no freedom of movement or unfettered access to livelihoods. Many are being coerced, at the moment, into accepting National Verification Cards. These are cards that are part of a controversial process that Rohingya fear will further erase their ethnic and religious identity from Myanmar records. At least three boats of Rohingya refugees have left Rakhine State in the last month, seeking safety and protection.
To its credit, the Government of Bangladesh has vowed not to force any Rohingya back to Myanmar, but I’d like to emphasize that forced returns can come in many forms, including through avoidable deprivations in humanitarian aid. For that reason, the international community, in our view, must maintain pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to respect the rights of the refugee population and to ensure aid groups have free and unfettered access. In short, the Rohingya must not be coerced into returning prematurely to their homeland in Myanmar.
I want to note that there have been between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh prior to 2016 and 2017. So some Rohingya refugees have lived in the camps in Bangladesh for more than 30 years. Some refugees have been born and raised in the camps in Bangladesh. This subset of refugees — which, unfortunately, have been unknown to many recent onlookers — have only known the confines of the camps in Bangladesh for their entire lives. They lack any meaningful opportunities to improve their livelihoods and exercise basic freedoms. This is, of course, largely due to the lack of solutions being achieved on the Myanmar side of the border.
Likewise, an estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State as we speak. They are at grave risk of more mass atrocity crimes. The Government of Myanmar continues to deny them equal access to full citizenship, restricts their freedom of movement and fails to provide them protection. The Government of Myanmar also continues to confine more than 125,000 Rohingya to more than 20 internment camps in five townships in Rakhine State. Most of them have been confined to those camps since 2012. As the chair of the UN fact-finding mission recently noted, the genocide continues.
With regard to recommendations, we would fully encourage the Government of Canada to work to persuade UN member states to ensure the UN Security Council refers the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. This would be consistent with the recommendations of the UN fact-finding mission; it would be consistent with the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee; and it would be consistent with the recommendations of many other human rights organizations.
The prospect of a Chinese veto at the Security Council, we have found, is often used to justify inaction toward international justice. We don’t — indeed, we cannot — subscribe to the idea that there is nothing that governments can do to get China and Russia to step aside and allow an ICC referral. China and Russia stepped aside when the UN Security Council referred the situation in Sudan to the ICC, and we believe they can be incentivized to do the same now. Part of the challenge is, of course, getting other UN Security Council member states on board, and this would include the United States government, France and others.
In addition to the UN referring the matter to the ICC, the UN Security Council could, as it has on multiple occasions in the past, exercise its authority under Chapter VII to establish a separate tribunal to investigate and try the crimes committed against the Rohingya population and others. Such tribunals have taken two forms in the past. We’ve seen ad hoc, full UN tribunals in the model of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. We’ve also seen hybrid UN/local country courts, for example, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Given that the Myanmar government at this stage will not cooperate with the UN, let alone with a hybrid-style court involving the host government, a fully controlled UN tribunal in the mould of the ICTY or the ICTR would naturally be the most plausible option, barring, of course, substantial political changes in Myanmar.
The Government of Canada, we believe, could also apply additional targeted sanctions, including against the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
We also fully encourage Canada to help ensure that Bangladesh continues to and doesn’t falter in its protection of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh should continue to postpone its bilateral plans to return refugees back to Myanmar. Again, forced returns can come in many forms, and we worry that Rohingya will be effectively coerced or forced to return to Myanmar before it can be safe or dignified.
Lastly, Bangladesh should ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and should ensure full and unfettered access for humanitarian agencies operating in the refugee camps.
Again, I want to thank you, and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. Thank you so much.
The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much, Mr. Smith.
While my colleagues are gathering their thoughts, I’ve got a question.
We heard previously that Bangladesh has been very accepting of the Rohingya people, but there was a caveat to that. The assumption was that this was going to be a temporary measure. With over 1 million Rohingya now in Bangladesh, are you seeing a change in that level of acceptance? I know you’ve made a recommendation about what Bangladesh should be doing in protecting Rohingya refugees, but is there any change from the position of accepting because it was necessary and the humanitarian thing to do, to suddenly they’ve gotten over a million and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight?
Mr. Smith: Thank you, Senator Cordy. We have seen different views coming from Bangladeshi authorities. We’ve been hearing from Dhaka that no Rohingya will be forced back to Myanmar.
In the refugee camps, we’ve documented instances of Bangladeshi security forces assembling Rohingya leadership in the camps, administering beatings, and threatening those Rohingya to participate in bio-data and convincing other Rohingya refugees to participate in the returns. So there are some indications of coercion.
Also, this idea of sending large numbers of Rohingya refugees to this flood-prone island out in the middle of the sea, as far as we can tell, is continuing. The authorities have been overseeing construction on that island. It’s a terribly ill-advised idea and the government has been told that by a number of actors, but unfortunately it appears to be moving forward.
In terms of host communities and local Bangladeshi people, there has been a mix, naturally, in any situation of large numbers of refugees. There are complicated dynamics with regard to host communities and that is unfolding in Bangladesh as well.
The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much.
Senator Andreychuk: I’m going to follow up because we did hear from the High Commissioner of Bangladesh saying there were significant numbers of Rohingya who are prepared to go back and that the government’s position was that they should go back because they are willing to go back. You’re saying the contrary, and I think that’s what we’re hearing elsewhere.
So we have a situation where Bangladesh is hosting them now under certain agreements, but it doesn’t appear that’s going to continue, particularly with the governance now in Bangladesh. You’ve given us some long-term solutions for the Rohingya issue, such as going to the UN Security Council, et cetera. I don’t think those are going to be short term.
If this situation continues to deteriorate, you’re saying there’s danger within Myanmar but there are also dangers and risks now within the camps and perhaps even forced evacuations of them individually or in groups. My first question is: What should Canada be doing now? Is it pursuing some of the long-term options that you’ve put out for courts, et cetera, or is there something we can do beyond just aid? There is the possibility of additional dollars, but then the system is still the same and the dynamics are still the same. We’re just hoping that more money gets to the refugees.
Is there anything short-term we need to do or can do?
The longer one is you said in the UN Security Council that Russia and China may, as they have in the past, veto from the situation rather than abstain, which they have done on certain other issues. You said we need to incentivize Russia and China. What would those incentives be? I think the normal diplomatic negotiations, encouragement and public scrutiny have not worked. What would be the incentive that Canada, or other like-minded countries, could do that you would think would be different in this situation?
Mr. Smith: Thank you, Senator Andreychuk. Those are great questions.
I agree with you completely on the distinction between the long term and the short term. There are an enormous number of Rohingya that are suffering needlessly right now in camps in Bangladesh. Despite the fact that the authorities have, as we all know, welcomed more than a million refugees, which is a tremendous burden, for quite some time the authorities have ensured a certain level of suffering among the refugee population.
This, from our perspective, at least, is really born out of the desire to ensure that the Rohingya do not get too comfortable because Bangladesh does not want to host them longer than they have to. This is an inhumane approach, so I think in the short-term, support for the aid operation is essential. To your point, that doesn’t necessarily come only in dollars, although it is my understanding that there are shortfalls in the humanitarian response in regard to the financing. This can only come in the form of pressure, and not only direct bilateral pressure communicating with Bangladeshi authorities about what should change and what should happen on the ground, but also creative pressure that could be garnered with like-minded countries.
Beyond that, the humanitarian response, as it exists right now, is not perfect, not by a long shot. There are efforts that could be pursued. In our opinion, the aid organizations operating on the ground could use more effective coordination. I think if there were ways to help organizations achieve that, that could also be a short-term improvement in the situation.
Other organizations such as the OIC could potentially have some additional sway on all of these issues.
In terms of the incentives, we weren’t privy to what incentivized China to step aside, for example, with respect to previous ICC referrals, like Sudan. My point was really born out of a belief that for governments and government officials who are in a position to see a bigger picture — and certainly to see a bigger geopolitical picture than human rights aid organizations or Rohingya communities — we have to believe that concerned states can get together and determine ways in which they could incentivize individuals representing governments and China and Russia in particular to step aside.
I regret that I don’t have a specific set of incentives in that regard, but again we do believe that governments would be able to do some creative diplomacy.
Senator Pate: Thank you very much, Mr. Smith, for your testimony.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting some young women who were hosted by Nobel Women’s Initiative. One of them is a young woman from Burma who is actually facing criminalization when she returns as a result of her promotion of ideas about democracy and concerns about what’s happening with the Rohingya.
I’m curious as to how prevalent that is. Also, she recommended — in addition to the same recommendation you made about referring to the International Criminal Court — trade sanctions by Canada. I’m curious whether that would have any impact from your perspective in terms of Canada’s trade, and whether there are other issues you could see that need to be taken to help protect those within Burma who are also advocating on behalf of Rohingya.
Mr. Smith: Thank you very much, senator, for the question.
In terms of how prevalent is the persecution or threats of intimidation against human rights defenders in Myanmar, it’s very prevalent. Myanmar is, I would argue, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a human rights defender, a journalist and a truth teller with respect to human rights violations.
Human rights defenders, particularly those who are speaking out on the Rohingya situation, are followed and threatened with arrest and violence. These types of things have been going on for some time.
Despite that, we have seen some very hopeful signs. More than 40 civil society organizations from all throughout the country banded together in 2016 to call for an independent international investigation. We believe their efforts helped persuade UN member states to pass the resolution that established the fact-finding mission. There has been positive action and some very brave human rights defenders working in the country. Part of our mandate is to support Fortify Rights, which we’re trying to do.
In terms of sanctions, we advocate for more targeted sanctions. At this point we’re not advocating for more broad-based sanctions, investment bans or trade sanctions. I should say that the broad-based sanctions in the past, while criticized by some, were part of the reason why we saw reforms taking place several years back. Former President Thein Sein travelled the world trying to get sanctions lifted, and he was successful in doing so.
We have seen that strategy work to some extent; however, now we fear that if sanctions were to harm average Myanmar people, this would in some ways potentially exacerbate anti-Rohingya sentiment. If the people in Myanmar felt their livelihoods were negatively affected by sanctions in one way or another — and certainly the government would try to exploit that narrative — that might lead to greater problems for the Rohingya population.
There are ways that governments can continue to apply pressure. The fact that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has not been sanctioned by anyone should certainly be rectified.
Senator Hartling: Thank you, Mr. Smith, for being here and for coming back to share your knowledge with us.
When I think about the situation, I feel fortunate that I am able to learn more about this situation, and be exposed to the various aspects. I am wondering about ordinary Canadians and if there needs to be more done to help them understand what the situation is and maybe step up and get involved in the situation. If so, what could be done? Are there campaigns or groups that are actively engaging Canadians in the situation?
Mr. Smith: There are certainly some Rohingya in Canada. As far as I know, they have been engaged in some awareness-raising, but we would certainly welcome broader, mass-scale awareness-raising about these issues.
The one thing that perpetrators of these violations do not want is for the masses to know what they have been doing and how. There are helpful and constructive ripples that come from that mass-based awareness — things that we may not even be dreaming of today that could become possible if more people are aware of what is going on. I would fully encourage that.
Storytelling is a powerful way to do that, and welcoming human rights defenders to Canada, which the Government of Canada and the Canadian officials have been doing for some time, is very important. It is important for people to hear directly from Rohingya as well. This is something that we try to prioritize.
There is Rohingya civil society and there are human rights defenders who have been risking their lives to document and tell the truth to help journalists and researchers. They have an important voice in this situation, and Canadian citizens would be compelled by that.
Senator Hartling: Thank you very much.
Senator Andreychuk: I want to follow up on the situation as it is now. Thank you for exploring that issue of Myanmar in that if we were to add more sanctions — in particular, trade sanctions — that it might have the opposite effect on the Rohingya who are presently already in confined areas. I think you called them internment camps.
On the other side, Bangladesh is now the subject of much concern in its governance and the increasingly difficult situation to put any democratic concepts forward above Bangladesh. It seems to be going in the other direction.
How do we balance the human rights issues that we should be addressing about the governance in Bangladesh vis-à-vis the fact that they seem to be at least somewhat supportive of the Rohingya on their state?
In other words, if I would raise issues about opposition leaders in Bangladesh at the moment, would that have a reverberation on the Rohingya? It is a Catch-22 at the moment.
Mr. Smith: Indeed. Thank you, senator. There have been some meetings with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, for example. Some prominent human rights defenders have met with her in private, and, to our knowledge, did raise the Rohingya situation and had constructive conversations while also raising a number of other human rights concerns. It is essential not to turn a blind eye to the other violations taking place in Bangladesh. It is an important message for the authorities to hear that when it comes to human rights it is not just for particular populations of people; it is for all people, including all citizens of Bangladesh as well as the Rohingya and others. We fully encourage addressing the gamut of issues.
Senator Andreychuk: You said China brokered this deal. I think it was a bit more complex than that; I appreciate you didn’t have the time to explain it. What should the role of China be, and what should Canada be approaching in China? Because it would be the most influential broker. If there is forced repatriation and continued difficulties, should we not be engaging China to use its influence? Would Canada be seen to be a good interlocutor with China?
Mr. Smith: Certainly. The Chinese authorities have multibillion-dollar oil, gas and mining interests in Rakhine State. If I were involved in those investments, my concern would be, as a businessperson, that genocide is not good for business. Elsewhere in China there are ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Kachin and Shan States in Myanmar, and there are also large-scale Chinese investments in the natural resources in those areas as well.
The fact that those investments — at least in northern Myanmar and Kachin — appear to be connected, in some way, to the armed conflict, this is planting seeds of resentment among the Myanmar people. Chinese businesses and authorities are essentially shooting themselves in the foot because this resentment will materialize in the future, perhaps when there is political change in those areas. We fully encourage China to pursue not only safe, voluntary and dignified returns of refugees, as opposed to what authorities are attempting to unfold now, but also accountability. Because impunity for the violations that are taking place in Rakhine State is not good for anyone’s business interests, particularly China, and so that might be an area in which the authorities could be engaged.
Senator Andreychuk: Thank you.
The Deputy Chair: Mr. Smith, thank you so much for being here today to give us an update. It is like a hot-off-the-press update. You have so much knowledge about this issue. Your comments were expressed clearly to the committee, and your recommendations will be helpful to us as we continue our study.
Mr. Smith: Thank you so much, senators. I greatly appreciate it.
The Deputy Chair: Before we start with our next panellist, we all received a six-page paper from our previous witness, Mr. Smith. This paper will be translated and the English and French versions will be on the committee’s websites.
Our next witness for the second part of our meeting today is Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR Representative in Canada for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He brings more than 20 years of international humanitarian and human rights experience, having worked with various United Nations agencies. Honourable senators will remember that Mr. Beuze appeared before our committee in October of 2017 to speak about the Rohingya refugees.
Mr. Beuze, welcome to the Senate.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR Representative in Canada, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Thank you very much, madam chairman and honourable senators. I am pleased to be back before this committee to discuss the pressing issue of the Rohingya refugees. Your attention to the issue demonstrates the leadership that Canada is playing in trying to find a solution to the crisis both in Myanmar and in Bangladesh.
I will not go in-depth about the root causes of the displacement, because you are all aware of the reasons. On one side is the statelessness aspect of it, which is also part of the mandate of the UNHCR, which is not only about refugees but also about finding solutions for stateless people. On the other side is the deprivation of rights which results from this lack of recognition as a citizen of Myanmar.
I usually start with a few numbers, and I think they are important to remind everyone of the situation we are facing.
In Myanmar, we have an estimated 128,000 internally displaced, out of which 125,000 are Rohingya who are in camps in central Rakhine State. In addition, we estimate that we have another 470,000 Rohingya in Rakhine who are not internally displaced and are in their place of origin.
As you can appreciate, it is extremely difficult for us to have precise data about the numbers but, more importantly, about their humanitarian and protection needs given the limited access that humanitarian partners have on the ground.
If I move to Bangladesh, as you all know, close to 900,000 refugees have crossed into Bangladesh, out of which 700,000 have crossed since August 25 last year. The bulk of the number of refugees in Bangladesh result from the armed clashes and persecution in August of last year when we saw 700,000 people crossing into Bangladesh.
One fact which may be lesser-known is the fact that this year we have seen 15,000 Rohingya crossing into Bangladesh to seek refuge and asylum.
We always link the number of people with the needs. We have been witnessing the images on television and in the media about the conditions in Bangladesh in the camps. We are really speaking about Cox’s Bazar, one of the highest densities on the planet earth with respect to human density. There are extremely crowded and difficult conditions for us to bring necessities to the Rohingya refugees, whether it is potable water, drilling toilets, providing safe spaces for survivors of gender-based and sexual violence or bringing children to school. All of this has been a challenge over the last 13 or 14 months.
Luckily — and I would like to emphasize that it was a bit of a miracle — the monsoons didn’t damage the settlement as much as we were fearing. We had to relocate some refugees because they suffered mud slides and glissements de terrain. Some lives were lost, unfortunately, but not to the magnitude that we were fearing when we entered the monsoon season. That doesn’t mean the stability of the settlement is assured for the coming years, because the monsoons come back on a twice-yearly basis, so we still need to address the shelter needs of this population.
In terms of the big picture, when I speak about humanitarian partners, it is both the UN agencies and the NGOs on the ground. The humanitarian partners with the Government of Bangladesh have issued a joint appeal for approximately $950 million for the period of March to December 2018, so nine months of this year.
We must note that as we speak now, only 45 per cent of the appeal has been funded, which means that basically one out of two needs identified by the partners cannot be covered. In simple terms, when we need to rehabilitate two shelters for two families who are at risk, we have to pick and choose and go for the one most at risk because we don’t have the money to cover the two shelters. If we have to drill toilets, we drill one when we know we need to drill two.
After 21 years of experience in this field and many years on the ground, I must say it is a warning sign. Normally in the first year of an emergency of the magnitude we saw last August and September, we tend to have at least 60 per cent of the funding received. This is much below what we usually receive at the onset of an emergency.
There is already donor fatigue and we have seen that in years three, four and five. We are witnessing that with Syria, Burundi and South Sudan, but this crisis seems to have been forgotten relatively rapidly. That begs some question with respect to the support we provide to the Bangladeshi authorities to maintain their openness about receiving refugees.
All the partners, UNHCR included, walk both sides with the refugees and the host communities because we are well aware that the Bangladeshi communities who are generously hosting those refugees also are in a dire situation. A lack of development projects on the ground for years means a lot of people are living below the poverty line and have similar issues, like access to quality education, maternal health care and so on, and are at risk of the same type of abuse and exploitation as the refugees. We do that to maintain the good relationship between the two populations who are living side-by-side.
In the whole discussion about return that we have heard, most recently over the last 10 days or so, we need to be clear that UNHCR and others have stated that the conditions are not yet there for any voluntary return in safety and dignity. Rohingya will be given the choice. It has to be an informed choice, that is something that we need to stress. The decision is individual and it is based on information received about what people will receive in terms of services upon return. We do not think that the conditions are ripe for such a return and we definitely appreciate the statement from Ministers Freeland and Bibeau reminding all the parties involved that the return has to be done in certain conditions. Otherwise it will not meet the international standard of protecting refugees.
Linking it back to the issue of support to Bangladesh, and at a later stage support to Myanmar and the reconstruction of the Rakhine State, it is important that we get the funding to do so in order for refugees to, return, one day, in good condition because in this lies the solution to the situation.
Thank you very much.
The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much.
Senator Ngo: Thank you, Mr. Beuze. You recently raised the issue of return or repatriation. How does the UNHCR feel about the repatriation of Rohingya back to Myanmar? How many are willing, so far, to voluntarily return to Myanmar?
Mr. Beuze: Some negotiations have taken place between the Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities on the issues of return and repatriation. UNHCR has not been part of that negotiation. We have been asking to be at the table, which is something we do in many other situations where we walk with both the receiving country and the country of origin to negotiate a voluntary, free, and informed return in safety and dignity. I am adding all those adjectives because each of them has their importance.
From what we have been able to do, there is a memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar authorities, UNDP and UNHCR to do a needs assessment in the Rakhine State of a number of villages. We have been able to do a number of those assessments but they are not fully completed. We were limited in our access to a number of villages, including those where, potentially, Rohingya refugees will return.
Based on this assessment and the consultation with the refugees in Bangladesh, we think that it is premature to call for a return or repatriation program for Rohingya. We are going to ensure that the Rohingya who may be thinking of returning have available to them all the information necessary to make an informed choice and a decision on their own, and that they don’t feel pressured to return to Bangladesh if they feel that the conditions are not there.
We are also clear that the Kofi Annan plan of action or road map that looks at addressing the root causes of the situation, meaning ending the statelessness situation, is the solution proposed by the UN, which is receiving some attention from the Myanmar authorities.
For the time being, the UNHCR’s clear response is that it is not the time for voluntary return. When it comes, we will ensure that people are informed and make a decision. If we feel that it is the right time, we will support their return. Otherwise, we want to preserve their asylum space in Bangladesh and in the subregion.
Senator Ngo: In your opinion, do you still believe that it is safe for the Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar?
Mr. Beuze: No. As I just indicated, it’s not safe. It is too early for thinking about a return. We know that basic essential services such as food, crops and livelihood opportunities have been destroyed. Health centres and education facilities have been destroyed and villages have been burned down. It will take time before all those services are rehabilitated.
Beyond that, we need to address the issues of security and safety and an end to human rights violations of the Rohingya. For that to happen, we strongly believe that the legal status of the Rohingya in Myanmar needs to be recognized.
Senator Ngo: Thank you.
Senator Forest-Niesing: Based on your response regarding the current situation, clearly the circumstances don’t lend themselves easily to a return in the foreseeable future. My question is as follows: What long-term strategy would be adopted if some of the existing issues could be successfully resolved through negotiations, for example? Myanmar may also be considered too dangerous for the refugees to return. What’s the long-term strategy?
Mr. Beuze: The long-term strategy is to respect the choice and decision of the refugees. Based on our consultations with the refugees in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Rohingya community, we know that they ultimately want to return home, like any refugee population. There will always be a minority of refugees who can’t return home or who don’t want to return home. I simply want to reiterate that we must respect the choice indicated by the refugees, and the choice indicated by all refugees, including Rohingya refugees, in our consultations in Bangladesh and elsewhere, to return home. That’s the strongest desire of any refugee population.
We also know that a number of refugees, whether they are Rohingya refugees or other refugees around the world, have suffered such trauma that they’ll never want to return home or they’ll be at risk of persecution even once peace and stability have been restored, since they have a certain profile. Even when a voluntary repatriation program exists, we must always leave space to allow people to choose whether to return.
That’s the ultimate desire of the Rohingya refugees. Therefore, we must be able to lay the groundwork and plan a number of measures, not only in terms of services. We must really also address the reasons for the persecution of these populations.
As you quite rightly said, the return isn’t expected in the coming months or years. We must be able to support the countries that have hosted refugees, such as Bangladesh — let me reiterate that the countries have taken in 900,000 people — so that the countries can give the refugees what they need and help the refugees live a dignified life. This means that the refugees not only live in dignified shelters, they can send their children to school, they have income-generating activities that enable them to look after themselves and they aren’t dependent on humanitarian aid.
The purpose of the long-term project is really to support the host countries and communities. To that end, UNHCR has launched a solidarity approach with other partners, including Canada, which is part of the group of friendly countries that support this initiative. For Bangladesh and Myanmar, but also for the other countries in the region that have hosted Rohingya refugees, the purpose of this approach is to review ways to make progress on a humanitarian and development level and to ensure that both the traditional players in the humanitarian sector and the World Bank are included. Canada has shown leadership by promoting an agreement between Bangladesh and the World Bank on a preferential loan to help with the integration and support efforts for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the neighbouring communities. The approach is a long-term initiative to ensure that no one feels forced, even indirectly, to return too early or on an uncertain basis to Rakhine State as a result of the decrease in services in the host country.
Senator Pate: Thank you very much for meeting with us again. I’m interested in what the High Commissioner’s view is about the role of the independent criminal courts in addressing this; and also the state impunity that’s being demonstrated by Myanmar, and, linking into the response you just gave to my colleague, how you see those mechanisms being used. We’ve heard that trade sanctions aren’t something that is favoured, but a lot of people are recommending referral to the International Criminal Court.
Mr. Beuze: As a humanitarian organization, we tend not to have any opinion on those issues whether it’s with respect to Myanmar or any other country. Because we operate on both sides of the border, we need to maintain our impartiality and neutrality so we can operate in safety for our own staff on either side of the border.
Other parts of the UN have made strong statements, whether it’s the Secretary-General or the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Bachelet, about human rights violations and issues of accountability and justice.
The Deputy Chair: The situation seems to be escalating; the numbers are growing. The plan was that some would be going back to Myanmar. That’s not happening; the situation and conditions are not allowing for that. You talked about the conditions in the camp: they’re very crowded, it’s difficult to get the basic things, and the amount of money coming is not what one would have expected.
When Bob Rae was here, he spoke to us about going through the camps and how very emotional it was for him to see the conditions and the people. Before he left, he asked one of the men, “What do I tell the people of Canada when I go back?” The man looked at him and said, “Please tell them that we’re human.” Sometimes when you see situations on television like the camps, because it’s so huge, it’s very easy not to humanize it. Is that part of the reason the money is not coming in? How do we put the humanity back into this situation?
Mr. Beuze: I definitely think the aspect of keeping in mind that we are speaking about human beings. I remember the High Commissioner coming back from the camps, and he has been in the humanitarian business for many years. He said that he had rarely seen so much fear and trauma in the eyes of the people he was meeting that it was very palpable that people had gone through horrendous situations — losing dear ones, being subjected to sexual violence and beatings. We need to remind everyone, including the Canadian public, that the Canadian public is not unique in this respect of the shared humanity.
We have to recognize that, because of what the senator was mentioning before, we are here for the long run. It’s frightening because we know it gets more difficult over time to keep up the momentum and attention of the international community, the media, donors, private funders and philanthropic organizations, including our own staff and NGOs. We have seen already a large decrease of the attention of the media and it’s important to continue, such as what you are doing here today, to keep the attention and ask relevant stakeholders, including the Government of Canada and the Canadian public, to not shift to the next emergency crisis. It’s not that the world doesn’t have a long list of dire humanitarian situations.
The Deputy Chair: One of the good things you’ve told us today is when Bob Rae was here he was concerned about the upcoming monsoon. It is good to hear that it wasn’t as severe as had been anticipated.
Mr. Beuze: But we will run into the same problem next year because the limited funding that we have received has meant that we were not able to stabilize as many shelters, pipes for the wastewater and barrels and toilets as needed. We have to think that those programmatic interventions are a cycle, and we often go back to square one because we were not able to make, in the first place, the necessary investment to do something which would be sustainable.
Sustainability comes with a certain level of funding. In the meantime, what we are doing is, as the expression goes, putting a bandage on an open wound.
Senator Andreychuk: Some of the difficulty is that once you start putting in the structures, it’s even harder to repatriate. In this case, with the long history — this is not something that erupted in a civil situation like in Syria that was years in the making — but the actual exodus was contained. This has been going on for decades.
You’re looking to put in structures when the agreement is repatriation, which is not the normal case. You normally receive the refugees and you don’t know what’s going to happen to them, but you had a deal here to repatriate. That’s part of the problem. How do we sort this out if we are going to appeal for public support for the ongoing?
Because it doesn’t seem to be helping the refugees, and we don’t have an answer. It is difficult when you see that perhaps you can manage another crisis, equally compelling, somewhere else.
That’s the reply I’ve heard from governments. It’s just a value judgment of maybe we’ll wait a few months and see if some of this can sort out. I don’t know if you want to respond.
In this case, is it the normal mandate for UNHCR? Or do you have a limited mandate, in this case, either by time or reference?
Mr. Beuze: Thank you very much. You noted a very important point, which is how to convince the authorities and the local communities receiving refugees that, by making investments in those communities and stabilizing the refugees you are not, de facto, in a way making them stay forever in the country of asylum. That has been a discussion, obviously, with the Bangladeshi authorities.
I think we have gone away from that kind of dichotomy by really emphasizing the benefits for the local population of investing, at the onset of a refugee crisis, into public services so that it benefits equally the Bangladeshi schools being rehabilitated, the Bangladeshi local children and the Rohingya refugees. It is money which, in some instances, would not have been allocated to Bangladesh to develop, let’s say, the educational system in Cox’s Bazar.
You can replicate that umpteen times for different aspects, including one thing that is important; that livelihood opportunities for the refugees are not at the detriment of livelihood opportunities for Bangladeshis. That’s the two-pronged approach that we have these days. We try to convince the receiving countries that being sustainable in our engagement doesn’t mean that we impose on them people who will stay for generations in their country.
One thing that I’m sure you alluded to as well is, as we have seen in the case of the Rohingya, that people have been returned in the past and then been displaced for a second time. We know, based on years of experience with refugee populations that once you have been displaced for a second time outside your country, you hesitate a lot about coming back home. We also have this situation where, for some of the refugees themselves, as well as those born in exile because we have some children who are born in Bangladesh, it will take time for them to be convinced to return to Rakhine State and Myanmar.
Ultimately, we are confident that the overwhelming majority — and that is the message that we have for the Bangladeshi authorities and the communities on the ground — wants to go back.
On the second point, we have a full-fledged mandate with respect to the Rohingya refugees. There were some issues of terminology with the Bangladeshi authorities at the beginning, and as you can imagine, with the Myanmar authorities. But in terms of being able to assist and to support all the partners, including the Government of Bangladesh, to deliver services, we have a full-fledged mandate which is based on our statelessness mandate.
I think in Myanmar what we have to recognize is the limited independent access we have to Rakhine villages to do the needs assessment, that will be part of the process by which, one day, the conditions will eventually be sufficient for people to return in safety and dignity.
Senator Andreychuk: The other issue is the governance inside the refugee camps. Are there structures and leaders, and is there any conflict between the leadership which often arises in refugee camps? Where do you get your advice? You have to deal, obviously, with individual cases, but it’s generally done under some local authority. Does that authority have any linkage to the Bangladeshi government at all?
Mr. Beuze: That is a very informed question. Indeed, we have different committees set up in the settlements in Bangladesh, including female-only representatives or female committees, so we make sure to see different perspectives. As we all know, gender plays a role in the resilience but also in terms of the prioritization of the need. UNHCR has a long tradition of engaging with refugees. It goes through an election. We have people, to a certain extent, who mount a campaign or present themselves as committee leaders.
What we make sure to do is disaggregate the population so that the minorities within the refugee population are somewhat represented, because they come with a different perspective of their needs, priorities and how they want to be helped in terms of building resilience.
We look at issues of gender, obviously, and we look at issues of age. I think it’s important to recognize that children have different needs. UNHCR has been quite strong on saying that elderly persons have different needs and emotional relationships with what it means to be in exile and looking at not necessarily being able to return before dying. It’s a totally different perspective.
A person with a disability will have another experience. You all have the image of the camps, as Bob Rae was mentioning, so imagine what it is like being disabled in those hilly, muddy settlements. We make sure that groups with different perspectives on the needs are represented.
We also try to involve the local communities and we try to match those committees by having refugees and local representatives speaking to each other to try to determine what may be the common ground or priorities.
Senator Andreychuk: Historically, do these groups replicate? Besides the added value that you mentioned regarding disabilities and women, are they generally the leaders that were the leaders in Myanmar?
Mr. Beuze: Not necessarily, because what you see is also a shift in gender terms and in responsibilities, especially when you are dealing with a large population of single female heads of households, such as widows or women who have lost the male relative, whether it’s a father, a husband or an uncle, and then have to assume a different set of responsibilities. We see a lot of shifts in the gender roles and some of the stereotypes are erased, but others are reinforced, unfortunately, during displacement.
Senator Andreychuk: Thank you very much.
The Deputy Chair: Thank you so much, Mr. Beuze, for being here today. On behalf of the committee, I want to express our thanks for providing an update on the plight of the Rohingya people. Your extensive experience and knowledge came to the forefront when you were not only speaking to us but responding to questions of the committee. It’s all been so helpful to us as we continue to study, look at and monitor the Rohingya crisis. Thank you very much.
Mr. Beuze: Thank you very much, and, honestly, thank you for keeping attention trained on this issue. I think the Senate has done a great job in this respect for the Rohingya refugees.
The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much.
(The committee continued in camera.)