Students at the University of Toronto must put pressure on the Canadian government to pursue key policies to address hardships faced by the Rohingya people. As a student, I have created a petition on the House of Commons website listing a number of calls to action for the Canadian government, including taking in stateless Rohingya refugees.

The petition has been sponsored by Member of Parliament Niki Ashton, and has successfully reached the goal of 500 signatures that is required for it to be presented in Parliament. I strongly encourage Canadian students at U of T to add their names to the petition and voice their concerns for the Canadian government to take actions that will alleviate the hardships faced by the Rohingya people.

According to a November 2017 poll by the Angus-Reid Institute, almost half of Canadians polled oppose prioritizing those fleeing Myanmar when it comes to Canada’s refugee acceptance policy. Furthermore, the fact that some Canadians are opposed to allowing refugees into the country on principle, I believe, indicates a profound sense of ignorance on the part of Canadians.

The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority in Myanmar and have been oppressed by the state for decades. The Rohingya people, under the nation’s 1982 citizenship law, are not recognized as citizens of the country, effectively leaving them stateless.  Furthermore, the Rohingya people have endured human rights abuses including restrictions on movement, limited access to healthcare, education, shelter, as well as experiences of arbitrary detention and forced labor.

Since the 1970s, there have been several crackdowns on the Rohingya minority by the state resulting in hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, according to Al Jazeera, Rohingya refugees were subjected to torture, arson, and murder by Myanmar security forces.

The recent resurgence of violence against the Rohingya people was triggered after nine border police were killed in October 2016, and troops started pouring into villages in Rakhine state.  

The government blamed an armed Rohingya group for the killings. Subsequently, the Myanmar army proceeded to launch  a crackdown on villages where Rohingya lived. During the crackdown, the government troops were accused of committing egregious human rights abuses ranging from extrajudicial killings, rape, and arson — allegations which the government has vehemently denied.

Since the violence escalated, it is estimated that more than 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Although Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, does not have control over the actions of the military, she does have the ability to criticize and condemn the military’s actions against the Rohingya people. This is something San Suu Kyi refuses to do: she even said the term ‘Rohingya’ should not be used when talking about the persecuted minority group; lobbying this view to the US government in 2016. Currently, nearly half a million Rohingya refugees are residing in camps located in Bangladesh under deplorable conditions.

Despite the overwhelming human rights atrocities being committed against the Rohingya people, many citizens of western nations like Canada are opposed to the country taking in Rohingya refugees, citing that they are an economic burden to the country. Aside from the clear humanitarian reasons for taking in refugees, the reality, which many Canadians do not realize, is that allowing more refugees into Canada can actually be beneficial to Canada’s economy. Take Canada’s Syrian refugee population: a report from Vancity Banking estimates that Syrian refugees to British Columbia will generate more than $500 million over 20 years for the local provincial economy.

In fact, Canada actually needs immigration to survive. This country has a rapidly ageing population. Statistics Canada predicts that by the mid-2030s, almost one in four Canadians will be 65 years or older, while the working population will simultaneously decrease by more than 10 per cent. Cities like Halifax have realized the need for more young labourers, and its Chamber of Commerce has called for a greater intake of newcomers. In fact, in 2014, the Conference Board of Canada predicted that Canada would need to increase annual immigration to 350,000 new migrants a year over 20 years.

Canada has witnessed the thriving of many communities consisting of individuals who initially came as refugees to this country. If allowed into Canada, the Rohingya population can be just as successful in positively contributing to Canada’s society and economy. For example, after the communist victory in Vietnam, Canada took in more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. Now, the Vietnamese community in Canada is thriving: consisting of accomplished doctors, lawyers, teachers, and community members who are actually creating jobs in Canada.

The Angus-Reid Institute poll also indicates that 55 per cent of Canadians believe the government should not intervene in the Rohingya crisis. I would argue that Canada, as a member of the UN, has an obligation to intervene under the Responsibility to Protect protocol. In addition to accepting refugees, my petition has highlighted a way in which Canada can intervene diplomatically in a manner where it might make a positive impact. The petition has called on Canada to put forward a UN General Assembly resolution calling on all countries to stop providing arms to the Myanmar military. This resolution, if passed, might compel Aung San Suu Kyi to put pressure on the military to halt its crackdown.

With the exception of Indigenous peoples, we are all immigrants and settlers on this land. Many students at this university have parents and ancestors who fled hardship in their homeland to come and live in Canada. As the children of immigrants, and of refugees who fled to Canada in order to escape persecution, students at this university have a collective responsibility to help those who are currently fleeing from similar or worse forms of violence.

U of T students must mobilize together and raise greater awareness of the Rohingya crisis, through engaging in activities such as signing petitions and participating in public demonstrations. Most importantly, we must put pressure on the Canadian government to make a commitment to take in stateless Rohingya refugees into this country.


Pitasanna Shanmugathas is a fourth-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Criminology. He started a petition on the House of Commons website demanding, among other things, that the Prime Minister make a commitment to take in stateless Rohingya refugees into Canada.