ROME – Cardinal Charles Bo predicts that the roughly 600,000 members of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority probably will never return to the country, in part because a Buddhist majority inflamed by “propaganda and hate speech” won’t accept them, and says it’s urgent for the international community to find a solution for this “stateless” people that “the world doesn’t want.”
“It has to be the work of the international community, and not just left to Bangladesh or Myanmar,” Bo, the cardinal of Myanmar’s national capital Yangon, said Friday.
“In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority, because of the propaganda against them, because of the hate speech and all of that, they wouldn’t accept people coming back from Rohingya,” he said. “In addition, many of these people don’t wish to come back because of trauma and they don’t feel safe to return.”
Illustrating the anti-Rohingya climate in Myanmar, Bo referred to a recent comment by a member of the country’s parliament.
“Just two days ago, a member of parliament of Myanmar made a statement that among the 135 ethnic groups in the country, the existence of the Rohingya was never part of that history,” he said.
Bo was speaking to Crux during a Vatican meeting of the “Santa Marta Group,” a group designed to bring together police officials and Catholic activists, especially religious women, involved in the global fight against human trafficking.
Bo said trafficking too is a calamity that often befalls the Rohingya.
“Because of the oppression of the past, many of them tried to run away to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia [and became trafficking victims],” he said.
“There have been people who’ve tried to traffic them, to get them out of Myanmar, and many have died in smuggling boats that capsized,” Bo said.
In a separate conversation with the Associated Press, Bo also acknowledged that the Rohingya had been victims of what he called “elements of ethnic cleansing.”
“All this is happening on Myanmar soil,” he told Crux. “We feel so sorry that it has happened, it should not have happened. ‘Rohingya’ is a very political term, but I’d say these people are to be pitied, they are stateless people.”
“They say that 600 children were born just while they were on the way from Myanmar to Bangladesh,” Bo said. “Because of their children, because of the poverty, and their situation, they are a really desperate case. The whole international community should focus on how to help these stateless people who don’t seem to be wanted by anyone.”
As he has in the past, Bo also issued a ringing defense of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s “State Counselor” and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, who’s attracted wide international criticism for what’s seen as a failure to be bolder on matters of human rights and especially the Rohingya minority.
“The government led by Aung San Suu Kyi gets all the blame, but I think the international community should understand her position,” Bo said. “When it comes to the military attacks, constitutionally she has no say on that. The international community must support her. In Myanmar, she’s the only one who can really continue building a democracy. If she’s not there, it will go back to the way it was before.”
The fight against modern-day slavery
The conference Bo was attending represented the fifth meeting of the Santa Marta Group, a body originally launched in London in 2014 under the aegis of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales, and which has since grown to include more than 30 countries and enjoys the personal sponsorship of Pope Francis.
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Bo said his overall experience of the gathering was the sense that “we have a determination to eradicate this curse of human trafficking.”
Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze of Benin City, Nigeria, told Crux that the cooperative relationships the Santa Marta Group fosters between police and Church activists has made a concrete difference in his home Edo State.
“Because of the role of the Santa Marta Group, the government is keen to lead and it’s helping a lot,” he said. “In Edo State, the government has keyed into this now, creating awareness and all that. When they see those who traffic people, they arrest them. Before that wasn’t the case, because the government wasn’t involved.”
“That’s why we come whenever the Santa Marta Group has a meeting, we come, to see what can be done,” Akubeze said. “In a way, we are victims too [in Nigeria] … there are many organizations that rescue trafficked people, and when they do, they send them back. But when that happens, how are these people maintained? We have to teach them skills, so they can be on their own.”
“We want to pick up whatever we can learn so we can help,” Akubeze said. “We want to be ready.”
Summarizing the results of the two-day gathering, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, he said the purpose is to build trust between police and Church actors – and one sign of progress this time, he said, was that “members were willing to share their sense of failure as well as sense of success.”
Nichols said that each of these meetings also serves to reinforce a sense of the vast scale of the human trafficking enterprise. This time, for instance, he said he learned that there are 4.4 million fishing vessels in the world, “and on many of those will be people in slave labor.”
So far, Nichols said, promising partnerships between police and the Church have been forged at the local level in many places. London Police Commissioner Cressida Dick offered a concrete example of those partnerships in a comment to Crux.
“In London, one of the houses that girls and women can go to if they’ve been rescued is run by the Catholic Church. There’s really good cooperation between my officers and the Church at a number of levels,” Dick said.
“I think there’s a very long history of this in the Church,” she said. “A victim of a crime like trafficking may find it very difficult to speak to a police officer, and they find it very difficult to reveal what has happened. Often they feel much more comfortable talking to a sister from the Church.”
“The Church is working on the ground throughout inner London, so that’s tangible and close to home,” Dick said. “But many of our victims, sadly, also come from Catholic countries abroad, and while the networks of law enforcement and the government help, the network of the Church is very valuable.
Dick also said that the Church helps educate her officers about the realities of human trafficking.
On the global level, Nichols said, the Santa Marta Group represents an international confederation. The next step, he added, is to begin building relationships at the regional level, meaning regions of the globe such as, for instance, the Pacific Rim.
The International Labor Organization estimates that 40 million people are victims of modern slavery globally, and that annual profits are as high as $32 billion. Human trafficking can take many forms including; forced labor, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced criminality and even organ harvesting.