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February 2024

Episode: KPN 25-02-2024

Kaladan Radio February 25, 2024 1649 6

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Canada’s commitment to assist displaced Rohingya in Myanmar, Bangladesh and beyond is more crucial than ever

More than three years since a military coup in Myanmar led to a surge in conflict across the country, the United Nations estimates that almost two million people have been internally displaced by the ongoing violence, while thousands more have fled to neighbouring countries.

In Rakhine State – an area in the west of Myanmar that has seen a particular increase in fighting since November 2023 – the humanitarian crisis created by this conflict comes on top of several other pre-existing emergencies, the most significant of which is the continuing fallout from large-scale and violent attacks against the area’s Rohingya ethnic minority in 2017, which drove hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives across the border into Bangladesh.

More than six years later, close to one million Rohingya remain trapped in miserable conditions in the overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, while many of the estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are confined to dismal fenced camps or rural villages, are prohibited from moving without approval from the authorities, and face ongoing persecution in their daily lives.

A deteriorating humanitarian situation
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been responding to the needs of the region’s Rohingya communities for more than three decades. In Myanmar, we operate two humanitarian medical projects in Rakhine State, where we are one of the only providers of essential health services for many Rohingya, who have been stripped of their citizenship by the ruling authorities. As a direct result of this imposed statelessness, the Rohingya endure discrimination and exclusion across all aspects of their lives, including restrictions on their freedom of movement, education and livelihoods opportunities, as well as access to healthcare. (Elsewhere in Myanmar, we also operate in the conflict-affected areas of Shan and Kachin.) MSF is also the largest provider of health services in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where we run hospitals and provide critically needed primary and secondary care, including sexual and reproductive healthcare and mental health services for a population with few other options. In Malaysia, MSF runs clinics for Rohingya patients, many of whom endure appalling conditions and indefinite confinement in immigration detention centres.

As a result, MSF has seen first-hand the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, and the continued suffering of the Rohingya, whose statelessness leaves them with nowhere to go —facing indefinite encampment in squalid conditions in Bangladesh, unable to return safely to Myanmar, and unwelcome in other parts of the region. We have also borne witness to the failure of the international community to find a solution to this crisis, and to the increasing global indifference to the plight of the Rohingya, as the world’s attention has been drawn to other emergencies.

Stateless and in need of assistance
That indifference is particularly alarming given the dependence of many Rohingya on humanitarian assistance for survival. In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees do not have the right to leave their camps and are not legally allowed to work. That leaves them trapped and dependent on international support — support that has been reducing year on year, leaving them stuck in increasingly deplorable living conditions.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya still in Rakhine State also depend on international humanitarian agencies for some of their most fundamental needs. And yet, not only have the authorities in Myanmar often deliberately blocked humanitarian activities in Rakhine State (where renewed violence is also currently making it extremely difficult for our teams to operate), but what response exists remains critically under-funded by humanitarian donors.

A crisis where Canada makes a difference
Canada is an important actor in this context. Since the start of the current Rohingya displacement crisis in 2017, when violence drove so many Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh, Canada has played a leading role in the international response, both as a donor and through its humanitarian diplomacy.

Canada’s willingness to take action, starting with the appointment of a Special Envoy to Myanmar in the first months following the August 2017 attacks, through to the launch in 2018 of Canada’s strategy to respond to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh, was based on recommendations made in Special Envoy Bob Rae’s report that same year. This highlighted the urgency of the crisis to other member states in the international community at a critical time, as did Canada’s efforts to fund and help facilitate the global humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar. Through its official strategy, Canada committed to “alleviating the humanitarian crisis; encouraging positive political developments in Myanmar; ensuring accountability for the crimes committed; [and] enhancing international cooperation.”

Canada must renew its Rohingya and Myanmar strategy
In March 2024, however, Canada’s strategy (which was renewed for a second phase in 2021) is set to expire, and these objectives remain mostly unmet. In part that is because the context has changed: since the coup of 2021, for example, the situation for people in Myanmar has deteriorated significantly. At the time of writing, communities in many of the areas where MSF is present remain in grave danger while their villages are used as battlegrounds. Additionally, we are witnessing an unacceptable disregard for the protected nature of hospital infrastructure as parties to the conflict fail to uphold their responsibility to ensure the safety of patients and healthcare workers. Meanwhile, the emergence of a number of other international crises have directed the world’s attention away from Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Rohingya.

But that loss of global attention is precisely why Canada’s continued engagement on this emergency is so crucial. It is also why MSF is calling on Canada to renew its strategy for a third phase – because we are already seeing the impact that reduced donor engagement is having on our Rohingya patients and their communities.

In Cox’s Bazar alone, some of our facilities are becoming increasingly overburdened as other humanitarian actors depart for lack of funding. Our teams are also seeing the consequences of reduced water and sanitation services, increased violence in the camps (including sexual violence), and outbreaks of disease amid deteriorating conditions. In Myanmar, Rohingya and other communities in Rakhine are facing increasingly desperate circumstances as assistance continues to dwindle and conflict further reduces humanitarian activities.

A global humanitarian priority
As an independent humanitarian medical organization, MSF will continue to deliver critically needed care ourselves to displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh, Myanmar and beyond, whatever the commitment by international humanitarian donors may be. But we can’t do it alone.

So it is crucial that Canada and other governments continue to make the Rohingya a priority for humanitarian assistance funding – and, since financial support alone will not solve this crisis (nor alleviate the conflict in Myanmar), sustained diplomatic engagement is also essential. Such efforts should focus on ensuring a safe and sustainable future for the Rohingya, and an end to their statelessness.

Through the launch of its strategy in 2018, Canada made an important commitment to these objectives, and to the Rohingya people. As the global response to their suffering continues to wane, and amid the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Myanmar – and in the face of a growing number of other international crises consuming global resources and attention – that commitment is needed now more than ever.

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