Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on 
Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Issue 28 - Evidence - Meeting of June 18, 2015


OTTAWA, Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met this day at 10:31 a.m. to examine such issues as may arise from time to time relating to foreign relations and international trade generally (topic: the situation of migrants in Southeast Asia).

Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: Senators, the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade is here to examine such issues as may arise from time to time relating to foreign relations and international trade generally. The topic that we will pursue in this session is the situation of migrants in Southeast Asia.

Before I turn to that report, this will be the last meeting, unfortunately, for Senator Fortin-Duplessis. On behalf of the committee, I want to pay tribute to her for her work in this committee. Since coming to the Senate, she chose Foreign Affairs and International Trade. I knew that she had been a member of Parliament and that she had great experience in Parliament. But I didn't understand how well-versed she is in foreign affairs and international trade matters. The wealth of experience she had on the other side has stood us in great stead in this committee. She has probably had the best attendance of any senator, perhaps including me, and she has always come well prepared and ready to ask questions, yielding to others when I've asked her to do so.

Without taking too much time because she is always concerned about the content, I want to say that she has put public service first in her life here. She has been an example and a role model for all of us through the years — certainly a role model for younger women. I know that she's taken an interest in them as they have come to her office. In fact, they work in her office and she has nurtured them. It should be noted in a televised session that senators such as Senator Fortin-Duplessis are very special here but not unusual. They are the senators who take this responsibility carefully and thoroughly.

I for one, on behalf of all members here, want to say, senator, how much we have appreciated your work and your contribution. When they say that you will be missed, Senator Fortin-Duplessis, you will be missed in this committee. Thank you with gratitude for your friendship. We hope that you continue to follow our work and to give us your advice as you leave the Senate but not leave your attention to public service.

On behalf of all members, we wish you well as this is your last meeting with us.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: I would like to make a brief comment. I too really enjoyed working with you, Madam Chair, and I also enjoyed travelling with you and with all of our colleagues. I am going to miss all of you, and I thank you for your kindness and for everything you did for me during these six and a half years.

So, I am leaving the Senate; obviously, I will greatly miss the parliamentary world, the Senate's interventions, and our work on bills and in committees. However, I was beginning to find all of the travelling a bit difficult. Those who decided that senators would retire at 75 had lot of experience. I thank you most sincerely for all of the things you said about me; they were very positive, and I am going to remember them for a very long time.

[English]

The Chair: I'm sure Senator Fortin-Duplessis will say, "Now get on with our work,'' and I will.

We are turning to the situation of migrants in Southeast Asia particularly now as we have finished our Southeast Asia study, which is going to print and has not been filed. We looked at the issue of the Rohingya population within Burma and environs. We heard about the human rights settlement issues. Since we concluded our report, the issue has grown in the region and has taken on greater significance. We thought that we should be updated to the present situation for our ongoing work.

We're very pleased that on short notice Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada agreed to come and briefly update us. We have before us Ms. Susan Gregson, Assistant Deputy Minister, Asia-Pacific; Mr. Peter MacArthur, Director General, South and Southeast Asia and Oceania; and Mr. Jeff Nankivell, Director General, Asia Programming.

You're all very familiar with this committee, and so we welcome you on your return visit. Ms. Gregson, you are going to start. Welcome to the committee; and I think you understand well that we will want questions.

[Translation]

Susan Gregson, Assistant Deputy Minister, Asia-Pacific, Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada: Thank you for the invitation to speak before you today and provide an update on the recent migrant situation in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.

[English]

For years smugglers have ferried migrants from the coasts of Bangladesh and Rakhine State in Burma to other parts of Southeast Asia, with the chief destination being Malaysia. The most common route has involved a trip by sea to southern Thailand, where migrants were often held in camps until they or their relatives could pay additional fees to the smugglers. From there, they have been transported overland into Malaysia.

Conditions at sea and in the camps have often been brutal, with beatings, sexual violence and even murder taking place. In some cases, those whose families have been unable to pay the smugglers were sold as indentured labourers. According to the International Organization for Migration, IOM, from 2012 to 2015 an estimated 160,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants paid smugglers to travel this route, including 25,000 during the first three months of this year alone, double the number from the same period last year.

The current crisis began to be covered widely by media on May 4, 2015, when mass graves, believed to contain the bodies of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, were discovered in smuggling camps in southern Thailand. This prompted a Thai government crackdown on smuggling rings. Trafficking camps, including evidence of imprisonment and torture, were also discovered in Malaysia, along with 139 graves. Fearing arrest, smugglers on land fled their camps, abandoning the migrants in the jungle, and crews at sea abandoned ships, with migrants remaining on board, leaving them adrift, in some cases without food, water or functioning motors.

The initial reaction of the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, in whose waters numerous migrant boats were found, was to provide vessels with limited amounts of fuel, food and water and push them back towards international waters. The situation generated an outcry from international organizations, who estimated that as many as 7,000 people could be afloat.

In response to international pressure, on May 20, 2015, following a meeting of the foreign ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter two countries signed on to an agreement to allow migrants to disembark on their territory on condition that the international community provide support for the care of the migrants and that the international community resettle or repatriate the migrants within a year. Subsequently, on May 29, 2015, Thailand held a broader meeting to discuss irregular migration in the Indian Ocean. Canada's ambassador to Thailand participated in the meeting as an observer.

The meeting resulted in several proposals and recommendations, such as intensifying search and rescue operations and strengthening national law enforcement to combat migrant smuggling and human trafficking. As of June 9, 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, estimated that approximately 2,000 people may still be at sea.

[Translation]

The reasons that have driven so many Rohingya and Bangladeshis to smugglers are varied and complex.

The Rohingya in Burma are not recognized by the Burmese government as citizens, and are widely seen as economic migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations. Between June and October 2012, long-simmering tensions between the majority Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine State and the Muslim Rohingya resulted in outbreaks of violence, leading hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes. Nearly three years after the violence, almost 140,000 Rohingya live in appalling conditions in displaced persons camps, where they lack access to basic services and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement.

[English]

It should be noted however that the increased flow of migrants seen in recent months does not seem to be the result of any significant deterioration in local conditions. Indeed, the security situation is better now than a year or two ago, though overall conditions for the Rohingya, including conditions in the camps, remain extremely difficult. The increase is more likely a case of supply of traffickers catching up with a pent-up demand to leave, as well as traffickers being able to invest in increased capacity. There is also the pull factor of significant demand for unskilled labour in Malaysia.

Burma portrays the current situation as a regional issue of criminality related to human smuggling and illegal migration, which is partially true, and denounces as finger-pointing any suggestion that its treatment of the Rohingya is a root cause.

The Government of Bangladesh estimates that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country, with only about 32,000 registered as refugees with the UNHCR. The Government of Bangladesh has allowed services to be provided to some Rohingya refugees, but is also wary of creating a pull factor bringing more Rohingya into Bangladesh and remains adamant that the only long-term solution is for the Rohingya to return to Burma. It is unclear if the Rohingya being trafficked were residing in Bangladesh for some time or if they crossed the border into Bangladesh to access the migrant ships.

[Translation]

Bangladeshi nationals leave the country primarily for economic reasons as opportunities for legitimate employment overseas — particularly in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Malaysia — have shrunk significantly in the last two years. Bangladesh has agreed to repatriate all Bangladeshi nationals and Rohingyas who were previously registered as refugees, but will not accept other Rohingyas.

[English]

In 2014, Canada provided $8.1 million in humanitarian assistance funding to experienced humanitarian partners in Burma to respond to the immediate needs of conflict-affected and displaced populations in the country, including the Rohingya in Rakhine State. Canada also provided $800,000 in assistance to UN humanitarian agencies in Bangladesh to meet the immediate needs of Rohingya refugees. A further $2.1 million was provided to the UNHCR to support its efforts in providing basic services and protection for refugees, displaced people and other vulnerable groups in Asia- Pacific. Canada is in the midst of reviewing needs across global, protracted humanitarian crises for 2015, including Burma.

Furthermore, since 2011, Canada has delivered more than $16.9 million in law enforcement and border security capacity-building assistance to countries in Southeast Asia as part of ongoing efforts to prevent and deter criminal networks from organizing human smuggling ventures that target Canada. While the current situation does not involve boats targeting Canada, the capacity created as a result of this programming strengthens the security of the region as a whole.

[Translation]

Canada opened an embassy in Burma last year. Embassy officials visited Rakhine State earlier this year, including camps around Sittwe, and made an extended visit to North Rakhine, visiting villages of resettled conflict survivors. During that visit, our ambassador spoke to the chief minister about the situation in a formal meeting in Sittwe. The embassy also raises the issue of human rights in Rakhine State routinely in its many meetings with cabinet level officials, and participates in joint advocacy with embassies of like-minded countries. In Bangladesh, our embassy has also advocated with the government to provide humanitarian assistance to Rohingyas.

[English]

In addition, Canada's Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, recently met with Burma's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs during a visit to Burma. He advocated for an end to the persecution of the Rohingya community and also announced Canada's support for two projects in Burma through Canada's Religious Freedom Fund. The projects will promote religious freedom through education and will help to build civil society's capacity to respond to violations of religious freedom.

[Translation]

We will continue to work with our partners to ensure respect for the principal of non-refoulement for asylum seekers and refugees, and to meet the protection needs of vulnerable peoples, such as the Rohingya, in accordance with international law. Canada will also continue to work with its international and Burmese partners to promote freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Burma, and will continue to advocate for religious freedom and the protection of human rights issues with Burmese authorities. Similarly, Canada will continue to support Bangladesh's economic and social development. Thank you, Madam Chair.

[English]

The Chair: Thank you. Will the gentlemen at the table be fielding questions?

Ms. Gregson: That's correct.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: I thank all three of you for having accepted our invitation to appear before our committee. I would like to put a question to you, Ms. Gregson, which is not directly related to your statement, but I am very curious about this.

We read recently in the newspapers that boats full of refugees arrived in Indonesia. Earlier, you said that the smugglers do not give them anything to eat or drink before they take them across on the boats.

In our last trip, we went to Jakarta. Have there been other boats since then that arrived in Indonesia? Perhaps the ones on board were Rohingyas. I am not sure. I would like to know what happened in that specific case.

Ms. Gregson: Thank you, senator, for your question. I think there are about 2,000 people who are still on board boats in that region. The Indonesian government, with the help of the United States, has conducted search and rescue operations for those boats.

As for the refugees who wound up in Indonesia, I will provide you with more information in writing. I do not know if Peter has any other information.

Peter MacArthur, Director General, South and Southeast Asia and Oceania, Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada: Indonesia accepted hundreds of refugees after a communiqué was published last May 20 by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. They accepted these refugees on the Banda Aceh coast, where a large number of these persons are to be found. Indonesians eventually accepted the responsibility for protecting these refugees.

[English]

Senator Ataullahjan: Looking at the situation in Burma and looking at civil society, looking at the politicians like Aung San Suu Kyi, she has been criticized severely for not speaking out against the atrocities being committed on the Rohingya. Her response was that she is a politician, not a human rights defender. We have the general election coming in the fall of 2015, and Burma's president seems to have renewed the focus on the national ceasefire agreement. Why is that so important now, and do you think anything will come of that?

Ms. Gregson: Thank you very much for your question, senator. With regard to the national ceasefire agreement, this is an agreement involving the various groups involved in armed conflict for decades. If you think about the situation in Burma, only 60 per cent of the population is ethnic Burman, and 40 per cent is made up of various ethnic communities. These ethnic communities have been involved in armed conflict amongst themselves and with the Burman majority for many years. The national ceasefire agreement has been negotiated over many months, and when I was in Burma last July, I was able to meet with some of the negotiators, who were quite optimistic at the time that the ceasefire obligations and agreements would hold. This is an area that we keep a close eye on. Our ambassador reports on it frequently, and in order for the country to move forward, it is important that these ceasefire agreements remain upheld.

Senator Jaffer: Thank you for your presentation. I have a number of questions, but I'll start with this one: For many years, many of us worked very hard to have Burma open up, and, happily — and a lot of it is due to all of your work — Burma has opened up. For me, it's really distressing to see that the person that we helped the most, Aung San Suu Kyi, not only does not speak up against this terrible issue when the world spoke up when she had issues, but now, as of today, she is saying that we have to tread very carefully, that this is a very sensitive issue. I know that our foreign minister, Mr. Baird, when he was there did a very good job of emphasizing how important it was that she play a key role. I'm not asking you to give any secrets. I know these are very sensitive diplomatic relations, but Canadians fought for her rights, and I feel she has let us down. I don't know if you can comment on that.

Ms. Gregson: Thank you for your question, senator. The situation in Burma is very complex. A lot of strides were made at the beginning of the reform period, so we saw political prisoners being freed, including Aung San Suu Kyi. We saw the removal of censorship. We saw political opposition parties being formed. What we are now looking at are some remaining issues, such as limitations on peaceful assembly, freedom of the press and so forth. We see a lot of human rights violations. With regard to perceptions of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, it is an issue that we do raise regularly, and many Burmese believe that the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. There are issues around the fact that they are Muslims and do not share the same religion as the Buddhist majority in Rakhine State. Without speculating on the motivation or the views of Aung San Suu Kyi, this is a widely held view in the country.

Senator Jaffer: I also want to recognize that Mr. Bennett has done a lot of work on behalf of Canada, and certainly his work in Burma is very much recognized by people like me who appreciate the work that the Office of Religious Freedom has done. I know that he has sent people there to work on these issues. When you say the Religious Freedom Fund that the government has set up, the projects to promote religious freedom, can you expand on what is he going to carry out through education and how to help civil society deal with these issues as well?

Ms. Gregson: Thank you very much. In fact, Dr. Bennett was in Burma just recently, May 1 to 7. When he was there, he met the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He met the Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs. So we're using his office, this Office of Religious Freedom, to engage our friends and allies, people who share our views. In fact, he was joined during his visit by the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, so the two of them worked together. In terms of the projects that were announced, he announced two projects in Burma through the Religious Freedom Fund. These will promote messages of pluralism and tolerance through education, and this will build Burma's capacity to respond to violations of religious freedom.

Senator Jaffer: The concern is, will they ever be able to go home? If not, what role will Canada play in giving asylum? I am a person that Canada gave asylum to, not just me, but thousands of people who had become refugees in Uganda. I will never forget what Canada did for us. What will happen to the Rohingya? I have not seen that kind of outpouring for the Rohingya that was there for us Ugandans. Maybe the time is not right; I am not being critical. I am wondering: What plans are there to provide a home for the Rohingya?

Ms. Gregson: Thank you for that question. When you speak to humanitarian actors such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the preferred solutions are always for these people to return to their homes and for a peaceful solution to be found. The second approach is for a regional kind of solution. It's only when that fails that the international community is approached for resettlement. We are still in the realm of looking at repatriation and resolving the situation locally. That seems to be the deadline that's been issued by some of the regional countries, that they will assist in the care of these Rohingya and Bangladeshis who have left their homes, but they want an international solution within the period of a year. This will be an interesting time to follow up.

Senator Eaton: Just to carry on Senator Jaffer's questions, as to the Rohingya in Burma, reading your speech, some have been settled in Burma for many generations. Are we talking 30 years, 40 years, 50 years? Do you have an approximate? Generations are different now.

Ms. Gregson: Yes, I don't have an exact date. Peter might.

Mr. MacArthur: Hundreds of years.

Ms. Gregson: Hundreds of years.

Senator Eaton: Hundreds of years?

Ms. Gregson: Yes. My understanding is they originally came in as migrant workers to work on some of the — Was it rice paddies in the region?

Mr. MacArthur: The British migrated them.

Ms. Gregson: Yes, the British brought them in. Maybe you'd better answer this, Peter.

Mr. MacArthur: For hundreds of years, they have been migrating from the Middle East as Arab traders, shall we say, a Muslim-faith visible minority. Only since 1948, when independence occurred from the British, has there been this kind of tension. The current government in Burma is trying to discriminate between those who have been there since 1948 and those who were already there before 1948, when the country gained independence. Being able to discriminate between those two groups is very difficult to do and not the right way to go, of course. That's kind of the history.

Senator Eaton: Will they consider making them full citizens, the ones who were there before 1948, which is 60, 70 years ago?

Ms. Gregson: They do not believe that they are citizens of Burma and believe that they should return to their home.

Senator Eaton: Which is Bangladesh.

Ms. Gregson: They believe it's Bangladesh.

Senator Eaton: Bangladesh will not accept them, either.

Ms. Gregson: Correct.

Senator Eaton: Has any pressure been put on Bangladesh?

Ms. Gregson: I think we're looking to the Burmese government to resolve the situation for the ethnic minority within their own borders who've been there for many hundreds of years.

Mr. MacArthur: The Deputy Minister of Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who formerly headed the International Organization for Migration has visited Burma four times in the past two or three months and is in senior- level discussions with the Burmese government as to what to do because there's a large number of Rohingya in the UNHCR refugee camps on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and there's been some environmental damage as a result of this. The good news is that these two governments are discussing the problem.

Senator Eaton: They're even living in camps within Bangladesh, even though originally they were Bangladeshi?

Ms. Gregson: Correct.

Mr. MacArthur: They're stateless people.

Senator Eaton: Are they kept in those camps? Are they prisoners? Is it because they don't have the education or means to go out and become part of Bangladesh society?

Ms. Gregson: The Bangladesh government has drawn some red lines with regard to them coming to Bangladesh and residing there. They are seen as Burmese.

Senator Eaton: They're prisoners within the camp?

Ms. Gregson: I don't know whether they're allowed to leave the camps or whether they're restrained there. I'm sorry, but we'll have to get back to you, senator, on that question.

Senator Eaton: It's a rather interesting question.

Mr. MacArthur: I do know that the High Commissioner to Bangladesh here has told us that a number of Bangladeshis have joined those camps because they're able to gain from the UN-funded care in terms of food and medicine, for example. There's a bit of that going on as well — non-Rohingya joining the camps for their own reasons.

Senator Eaton: If you live in the camp, you're looked after.

Mr. MacArthur: You're looked after by the United Nations. We are members of the UN. Indirectly, we have a role in helping those families continue to exist, yes.

Ms. Gregson: If I may, I would like to turn to my colleague Jeff Nankivell.

Jeff Nankivell, Director General, Asia Programming, Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada: I could expand on that a little. It's estimated that of the 500,000 Rohingya who are in Bangladesh, about 30,000 have been recognized as UNHCR refugees and are in camps. They're not restricted to the camps, but they're in the camps because they can be recognized as refugees and can get access to services. There are several hundred thousand living hand to mouth where they can and as they can in Bangladesh; but they're stateless people.

Senator Eaton: Being stateless, they have no papers and can't get jobs. They're displaced.

Mr. Nankivell: Not formally, anyway.

The Chair: Perhaps we'll change to a slightly different issue about the Rohingya. This has been grabbing international headlines. When we started our study on Asia-Pacific, we were certainly aware of the plight of the Rohingya within their community, but they were not the only ones. There were other minorities that we were also worried about, and we were worried that the development of that country would go in the right direction towards better governance, democracy, and respect for human rights, religious minorities, et cetera. There seemed to be that movement. Then this census issue came up in Burma, which exposed some of the difficulties in a very graphic way. The international community had been monitoring that, but it's now taken on proportions in a broader context because it is a difficult humanitarian issue.

In our report, and I don't think I'm disclosing anything, but senators can tell me if I'm out of line, we were looking at trade opportunities and security issues for Canada. There certainly seemed to be, from our witnesses, a movement to concentrate in that area; but it was always subject to what direction these countries were moving. Now that there's an international focus on the plight of these people and some of the horrific graves that have been unearthed, I'm sure we're assessing our opportunities and obligations in that area. Have there been any changes because of this, or are you still in a monitoring situation?

Ms. Gregson: Well, I'd say we're still very much in a monitoring situation. We're also in an outreach situation in terms of continuing to provide messages and capacity building to the Burmese government to promote, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, respect for the rule of law, human rights, religious freedoms and so forth. We're still very much in an engagement state.

The Chair: Some people's rebuttal to moving cautiously has been that Burma has been closed for so long and has been a military dictatorship. It's starting to open up, but of course the military still has a strong role there. While we address the Rohingya issue, we're mindful that other issues are moving forward and need to move forward if Burma is going to succeed in this development phase. They say that it's a balancing act of how to handle it for the strategic, long- term benefit of both the Rohingya and other people in Burma.

Is there something else we could be doing now? Before, we were going to offer assistance as they wanted it on building their structures and institutions, and encouragement to understand that adherence to human rights and the international treaties is in their best interests. This has taken on a regional importance. Is there something we can do within the ASEAN context or the international context to do more than we were doing before?

Ms. Gregson: Well, that's a very good question. Certainly, we advocate within ASEAN. I'm the senior official in our relations with ASEAN. We advocate respect for human rights, religious freedom and so on and encourage all members of ASEAN to abide by those principles.

We use various initiatives in Burma, as I was saying earlier, to continue to work with authorities, build capacities and institutions. As you mentioned, they have not been able to build under the military junta for many years — decades. This is a long process, and our policy is to continue our engagement while speaking out on issues that we feel are not acceptable.

The Chair: Has your advice to business going into that area changed? Have businesses come to you to ask for more information as a result of these headlines?

Ms. Gregson: I'm not aware of any businesses raising those issues recently. Businesses ask for advice on how to engage in Burma and how to do business there. Of course, given the recent history, it is a challenging place to set up business activities. At the same time, we think there are opportunities for Canada. Generating economic activity and growth provides stability and a more stable situation for us to continue our advocacy on other important issues of governance and so forth.

The Chair: Thank you.

Senator Patterson: I'm grateful for the witnesses and to be here as a temporary member of the committee.

I'd like to ask Ms. Gregson or her colleagues a question. You've spoken today of your support for humanitarian assistance in 2014 to experienced humanitarian partners in Burma — $8.1 million that year and a further $2.1 million was provided to the UNHCR. I'm wondering if you could elaborate. You said that you're reviewing the needs related to the humanitarian crisis for 2015, including Burma. I wonder if you could give us a little more detail on how you would work with NGOs in this area this year.

Ms. Gregson: My colleague Jeff Nankivell will respond to this question.

Mr. Nankivell: Yes, and thank you for the question. Maybe the best way to answer would be to give a bit more detail for the financial year that has just ended. We worked with major NGO partners, including Save the Children, UNICEF, Oxfam-Québec, Médecins Sans Frontières Canada and the Red Cross networks, as well as the HOPE International Development Agency. We can provide this information in detail in writing. For the financial year that just began two months ago, we anticipate continuing to work with similar types of partners as we go forward on the humanitarian assistance side.

We have also been working for the last five years in one project and for about 15 years now with a coalition of NGOs who are working on border area issues for primarily ethnic minority populations in the Burmese context. This is a project that the Government of Canada has been funding through the Canadian NGO Inter Pares that works with a very broad coalition of NGOs, some of whom have testified at various committees over the last year here on Parliament Hill.

Particular to the issues that we're talking about today, under this Burma Border Assistance Program, which started by providing assistance for NGOs working in the refugee camps and the refugee communities outside the camps in places like Thailand and Bangladesh, much of that activity has now, with the opening up of Burma, with the political changes there, moved inside the country. Through that program and through Inter Pares, the Canadian NGO, we have been providing support to some organizations, grassroots NGOs that work specifically on issues in Rakhine State, including providing reports to international media about conditions for the Rohingya populations there.

Senator Patterson: I was very pleased to hear your mention of Inter Pares. I'm familiar with their work and believe it's effective. I certainly don't want to put you on the spot, sir, and this may be under review, but are you aware that Inter Pares has applied for continued support this year for their project called Burma's ethnic civil society and that they would be grateful to hear whether their work can continue this year?

Mr. Nankivell: I'm happy to confirm that there is a proposal that I'm aware of and that it is under review and continues to be under review.

Senator Oh: Thank you. Welcome back. This migrant problem seems to be well orchestrated and well planned. It's different from 1975 when the Vietnam War was over and you had people running for their lives because of communism taking over. This seems to be well orchestrated and well planned. The migrants are paid to get onto the ship and come down to Southeast Asia. Do we know how to get down to the root? Because the more we take in, the more they are coming out. It's a business. Can you comment on that?

Ms. Gregson: That's a very good point. Thank you for your question. We are aware that a lot of the movement that we see on the part of the Bangladeshis and Rohingya that are on the move right now in the region is supported by activities of the smugglers. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, there was a certain amount of movement out of Burma in recent years, but it has really picked up over the last year because these opportunities were been developed by people smugglers, by traffickers who are taking advantage of the plight of these individuals to basically make a profit for themselves. We do provide support to anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling efforts in the region, and we will continue to engage with the international community to see what can be done about this.

Senator Oh: This issue is probably more heavily related to ASEAN countries. For instance, if they land on Indonesian soil, they have to take them in. They can't put them out again. That is the Indonesian regulation. If a refugee lands on their soil, they have to accept them. Is that correct?

Ms. Gregson: The different countries in the region have different approaches to their obligations under the UN convention on refugees. Some countries have signed and ratified, while others have not, so their approaches will be differentiated based on their approach to international migration and refugees generally.

Senator Oh: My thinking was to get down to the root and stop it from coming out. Otherwise, they will keep on coming.

Ms. Gregson: That's always the approach to prevent this. It's exploitation of people who are living in these circumstances, and obviously we are trying to work with the international community to prevent that.

Senator Ataullahjan: To follow up on what Senator Oh said, initially, no country wanted to take any refugees, but Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take 7,000 with the condition that they be resettled within a year. Thailand refused. They did not agree to take any migrants, but they said they would not push back against them. Is it feasible? How do you resettle refugees, people who have nowhere to go within a year?

Ms. Gregson: That's the question that's before the international community for us to resolve within the coming year. Obviously the best solution is for people to return home under conditions of dignity and respect for their welfare and human rights. That's certainly the approach that the international community will have to explore, but it is an issue that is a dilemma that we're going to have to look at.

Senator Ataullahjan: How are the governments of Burma and Bangladesh reacting to the migrant crisis? There was a statement where I think it was the Bangladeshi Prime Minister called them mentally sick for wanting to leave the country.

Ms. Gregson: With regard to Bangladesh, the government there has formed a task force on migrant smuggling, and they've put aside $59 million to allow the coast guard to have a better capacity to do this. They've made a number of arrests of traffickers as well. They're also looking at strengthening their Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act of 2012. There have been discussions within the last few weeks with the Government of Bangladesh and international agencies such as UNHCR and IOM to develop an awareness campaign about the risks of illegal migration. Traffickers prey upon vulnerable people by making false promises to them and creating expectations that are eventually not fulfilled, so this awareness campaign is a very important step.

Senator Ataullahjan: We keep hearing that there's huge economic opportunity in Burma for Canada. We recently heard, in fact, in the Human Rights Committee that Burma will probably be the next major garment exporter. As we heard from you last time, you said Manulife was already there. Looking at the looming migrant crisis, if it suddenly becomes a huge garment-exporting country, I'm concerned about anybody being there to recognize and speak on behalf of the garment workers. Right now, they're silenced there. If all of a sudden you have a boom in the garment industry, I'm concerned.

Ms. Gregson: Well, we have been engaged very deeply with the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh, and I'll ask Jeff Nankivell to expand upon that.

Mr. Nankivell: I wonder if I could ask the senator for more clarification.

Senator Ataullahjan: It is about the human rights of the workers. We saw what happened in Bangladesh. Steps are being taken. Unions are forming. The world has sort of realized there was an issue there, and it's being dealt with.

But I'm saying if the Burmese government is not even willing to recognize there's a problem with the Rohingya, if it becomes a huge garment exporter and then these abuses of workers happen, how will we react to that? How would we deal with that?

Mr. Nankivell: I'm not sure any of us is well placed to speak about the actual immediate prospects for a large-scale garment industry to spring up in Burma, but certainly the potential is there because it's a country with a huge pool of very cheap labour.

I think the thing that we will be watching for, as we have done in Bangladesh and in some other countries, is to be working with authorities, international partners like the International Labour Organization, international NGOs and the organized labour movements internationally. It will also be to work with authorities and NGOs in the country to put a spotlight on issues of labour conditions as factories are set up. It's certainly something that we're all going to have to watch for. We certainly see it as an issue to watch for as we work together in the international community and domestically in Bangladesh to improve worker conditions there, to pay attention to the possibility that some lower-end producers would try to shift their production to other countries where the requirements are not as stringent. As I think we've discussed in committees here on the Hill over the past couple of years, it's something that will require a broad coordinated effort across all countries as we move forward.

The final thing I'll say on that is that we do have an ongoing project in the Southeast Asia region with the International Labour Organization, which has been working over the last few years specifically on issues of migrant labour, the working conditions for migrant labour and the awareness campaigns at the grassroots level in the places where migrant labourers come from. The places they come from can be domestically within countries, moving to cities where the factories are and then moving across borders in some cases. The other issue is to make sure that people who are motivated to move have the information they need about what their rights are and what the conditions are where they will end up or where they think they'd like to go. One of the most important factors is to make sure that individuals can make informed choices about the risks and rewards of opportunities.

We are working with the ILO. We have a project at the regional level in ASEAN, and the Australians are funding a complementary project that works with national governments on migrant labour issues.

The Chair: Thank you. I've come to the end of the session. Your information is extremely helpful. As we come to finalizing our report, it's reassuring that these very contentious issues are being reflected on in our foreign policy through the department. We need to continue to monitor and we need to continue to find as many levers as we can to address these issues, so no doubt you will be before us again, but we very much appreciate the update and the information on specific issues and about the region. Thank you very much for coming.

(The committee continued in camera.)