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.
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
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
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
The Chair: Thank you. Will the gentlemen at the table be fielding
Ms. Gregson: That's correct.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.