A Rohingya woman holds her infant as she scuffles to receive relief aid Nov. 28 in the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. CNS photo/Susana Vera, Reuters

Canadian Church ready to help Rohingya refugees

  • April 10, 2018

Catholic parishes, ministries, religious orders and institutions stand ready to help should Ottawa heed Bob Rae’s advice on the Rohingya crisis.

In a 39-page report outlining how Canada should respond to over 670,000 Rohingya refugees who have flooded into Bangladesh since August 2017, former Ontario premier and interim federal Liberal leader of the opposition urges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to:

  • Actively engage with the government of Myanmar.
  • Increase development spending throughout Myanmar and specifically in Rakhine state.
  • Establish a “Rohingya Working Group” to co-ordinate government and Canadian NGO efforts.
  • Work towards an international working group which would co-ordinate the humanitarian and development aid response.
  • Initiate an investigation into crimes against humanity and genocide for possible court proceedings in future.
  • Accept Rohingya refugees for resettlement in Canada both from Bangladesh and from within Myanmar.

Overall, the Rae plan would cost about $150 million a year for four years. This would be Canada’s contribution to a “Joint Response Plan” drawn up by United Nations agencies, the government of Bangladesh and large NGOs, which calls for $950.8 million (US) in aid this year.

“What we do, or don’t do, in response to the Rohingya crisis will be a litmus test for Canada’s foreign policy,” Rae wrote in the report.

When it comes to welcoming refugees, the sponsorship committees in parishes across the Archdiocese of Toronto are ready and willing, said Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto director Deacon Rudy Ovcjak.

“Our parishes have an overwhelmingly good will that they’ve exhibited towards assisting refugees,” he said. “I don’t think this would differ with regards to supporting the Rohingya refugees.”

Should the government find more money for humanitarian and development assistance to help the masses of people stuck in refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has contacts on the ground that can make things happen, said its emergency relief program officer Stephane Vinhas.

“Responding to the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh and addressing the political challenge in Myanmar — yes, we are ready,” Vinhas told The Catholic Register. “For the humanitarian crisis, we will work with Caritas Bangladesh, a local NGO doing very good work. In Myanmar it’s more complicated, because there’s no access to Rakhine state, which is where the Rohingya are coming from. It’s very difficult to go there. We are trying to see what we can do there in Myanmar.”

A team of Jesuits with support from Canadian Jesuits International has been at work inside Myanmar since 2013. At the urging of Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Jesuits have set up a community college and are working toward establishing the Myanmar Leadership Institute, training people to be ready for real democracy when it comes.

The Jesuit Refugee Service, also supported by Canadian Jesuits International, has just received permission for the next three months to work with Caritas Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar. They’ve begun setting up child-friendly spaces, psycho-social care and case management. However, Bangladesh’s government is worried about the camps becoming permanent and won’t allow formal education inside the camps.

The Rae report, titled “Tell Them We’re Human,” is an excellent starting point for Canada’s response to the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, Vinhas said.

Expediting Rohingya refugee resettlement is a great idea, he said, but it can’t be done at the expense of other refugees already waiting years for their chance to start new lives in Canada, said Ovcjak. 

“In 2016 when the Liberal government established a target of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees, it was done at the cost of delaying the processing times for tens of thousands of refugees that had already been waiting, in some cases for many years,” he said. 

With only 408 spaces allocated to ORAT for new sponsorship applications in 2018, thousands of Toronto families and sponsors have been shut out from sponsoring refugees, Ovcjak said. He believes the government needs to increase staff to process applications faster.

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