The Rohingya refugee crisis needs our attention

Contextualizing the role of students in protecting basic human rights

illustration by Ashley Chen

The Rohingya refugee crisis affects more than 600,000 people by taking lives, tearing families apart, and burning homes to the ground. The recognition and awareness of this ongoing crisis by university students, set to become our leaders of tomorrow, is critical in protecting basic human rights going forward.  

Despite being so catastrophic, the Rohingya refugee crisis remains largely undiscussed in Western academic and political spheres. The Rohingya Muslims represent a prominent ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar, primarily in the western region of Rakhine. Self-recognized as descendants of Arab traders, the Rohingya have a distinct culture. They have been historically denied citizenship and continuously discriminated against by the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government which views this diversity as a fundamental threat to national solidarity.

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi, once touted as a symbol of peace and labelled “Asia’s Mandela,” now perpetuates a political regime poisoned with discrimination, genocidal rhetoric, and the blatant neglect of human rights.

On Aug. 25, 2017, Rohingya Arsa militants conducted fatal attacks on over 30 police posts in the region. The state’s military retaliated with support from mobs of Rakhine Buddhists by burning down 288 Muslim villages and killing 6,700 people within a month, ultimately producing over 600,000 refugees in the long-term.

Suu Kyi neglected to penalize the genocidal attacks of the military, choosing to defend the killings and refugee-producing expulsion in an 2019 ICJ trial. This overt endorsement of human rights violations questions the moral integrity and democratic legitimacy of the National League of Democracy (NLD)—Myanmar’s Suu Kyi-led government.

Bangladesh, which borders with Myanmar and its Rakhine region, experienced an influx of refugees following the 2017 violence. The overwhelming number of shelter-seeking migrants led the state to declare it would stop accepting any refugees in 2019.

Any hope for these refugees to return home is impeded by Myanmar’s refusal to grant the Rohingya citizenship. Despite attempts at a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the safe return of refugees, the Rohingya have justifiably been unwilling to return without the protection of citizenship.

The situation is not improving for the 400,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, either. Many live in camps without access to education or healthcare and limited freedom of movement. Before the refugees in Bangladesh can be integrated back into Myanmar, the Rohingya who never left must be protected and provided their basic human rights.

Myanmar uses a system of propaganda to portray an alternative future for its Muslim minority. The government presents an image of safe return for refugees which includes medical assistance, services for new mothers, food, water, a daily allowance of 1,000 Kyat per person, and long-term work incentivization. They promise new location for returnees, but, unsurprisingly, the location of these new centers remains undisclosed.

In August of 2018, the UN asserted that the mass killings, rape, and other atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military constituted “genocidal intent.” Despite this international recognition, little has been done to successfully protect the Rohingya and their human rights.

However, this crisis can still be resolved. The solution starts with non-profit humanitarian organizations working to improve living conditions for refugees.

Humanity Auxilium (HA) is a charitable organization helping at-risk groups across the globe, with its primary focus being the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Founded by Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Fozia Alvi, a trained physician working in Calgary for the past 13 years, HA targets education, health, and long-term relief for groups in need. So far, the organization has dispatched four outreach teams, worked at two refugee camps, and made over 700 individual household visits.

Dr. Alvi started HA after directly witnessing the horrible living conditions of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As a passionate humanitarian, Dr. Alvi has spoken at the international level on this genocide, and even attended the UN General Assembly opening dinner to discuss refugee health and protection.

HA prioritizes the long-term stability of communities. Rather than encourage dependency, HA strives to strengthen communities into becoming self-sufficient. The work the organization does for mothers is invaluable considering 40 per cent of the Bangladesh refugees are younger than 12.

Beyond Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and international actors, everyone can help protect refugees.

As of 2020, HA has partnered with multiple Ontario universities, including Queen’s. Humanity Auxilium: Queen’s Chapter supports Humanity Auxilium by raising awareness of humanitarian crises on an international level through the student perspective.

HA: Queen’s Chapter supports all healthcare initiatives implemented by HA through education and fundraisers. So far, the club has produced educational Instagram posts, held giveaways, and introduced a speaker series that includes a segment from Dr. Alvi.

Queen’s students interested in raising awareness and learning more about the crisis can join HA: Queen’s Chapter as general members. This is an opportunity to engage both directly and indirectly with HA by supporting its protection projects.

Alongside supporting HA: Queen’s Chapter, donations contribute toward vital fundraising efforts. By funding the presence of health workers, nurses, and physicians, any level of contribution goes a long way in improving the dire living conditions refugees face. Especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, financial resources are more valuable than ever.

Although international crises might often feel obscure or inaccessible, every contribution, be it from an international actor or individual students, makes a fundamental difference in the protection of democratic values and human rights.


Ema Popovic is a third-year Arts & Science Student. 


For more information on Humanity Auxilium, follow them on Instagram or join them on Facebook.

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