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Rohingya blame game: efforts to help refugees return home being sabotaged, Bangladesh PM says

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Bangladesh prime minister accuses aid groups, Myanmar authorities of trying to sabotage Rohingya repatriation efforts; people hooked on heroin say an unusual health clinic has saved their lives.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A Myanmar border guard stands near a group of Rohingya Muslims in a village in Rakhine state during a government-organized visit for journalists on Jan. 25. Only a select few of the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh have agreed to go back home, citing fears of further persecution. (Richard Sargent/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • The prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, accuses aid organizations and Myanmar authorities of trying to sabotage efforts to repatriate the Rohingya.
  • People in a Vancouver neighbourhood who are hooked on heroin say a health clinic's unorthodox approach to treating them has saved their lives.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Repatriating the Rohingya

The prime minister of Bangladesh says that authorities in Myanmar and international aid groups are both actively trying to prevent Rohingya refugees from ever returning home.

"The problem lies with Myanmar, as they don't want to take back the Rohingyas by any means," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told a press conference yesterday, voicing her frustrations over the slow pace of repatriations since the two nations signed an agreement last November.

More than 900,000 people who fled the Myanmar military's coordinated campaign of murder, rape and arson in Rahkine state in the fall of 2017 remain stuck in overcrowded refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar region of Bangladesh. Only a select few have agreed to go back home, citing fears of further persecution.

But Hasina says aid organizations are also trying to sabotage the repatriation efforts by encouraging Rohingya to protest the plan.

"Who instigated the movement?," she asked reporters. "The problem that I now see is that different international agencies that are providing voluntary services or working at Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar never want any refugee to go back."

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivers a speech during the International Conference on The Future Of Asia in Tokyo on May 30. Hasina said Sunday that efforts to help the Rohingya return to Myanmar are being thwarted. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

Hasina's comments come in the wake of a leaked assessment report from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that appeared to be trying to lay the blame for the failure of the repatriation deal on Bangladeshi bureaucracy. The draft report, first obtained by AFP, gave Myanmar high marks for its "smooth and orderly" plans to house returnees in barbed-wire-encircled temporary camps under armed guard, and discounted curfews and travel restrictions in Rakhine state as "short-term inconveniences."

The report also raised the ire of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who are accusing the ASEAN and the United Nations of conspiring to move them back into the danger zone without proper consultations or safeguards.

"What will ASEAN and Myanmar do to stop [security] forces from continuing the genocide against Rohingyas when we return home?," a refugee group said in a news release. "They do not consider us as human beings with rights and dignity."

The situation within the refugee camps — now the largest such complex in the world — remains dire. An ongoing diphtheria outbreak has sickened more than 8,600 people and killed 45, and there are fears that other infectious diseases might spread.

A young Rohingya refugee spreads out firewood to dry next to a solar panel on the roof of a shack at the Hakimpara refugee camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district on Nov. 18, 2018. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

There is little access to education, and human traffickers continue to prey on Rohingya desperation. Last month, Bangladeshi police rescued 23 teenage girls who were being shipped to Malaysia where they had been promised jobs, but were probably destined for the sex trade.

And the return of the monsoon season has again raised fears of flash flooding and landslides in the overcrowded camps.

But there are few indications that the "purgatory of international inaction," as the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has described the situation, is about to end.

At the beginning of the month the UN quietly gave the Myanmar government another year to establish a framework for the voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya.

A Rohingya walks at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on March 7. The UN has quietly given the Myanmar government another year to establish a framework for the voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

And despite the International Criminal Court's continued probe into possible war crimes charges against Myanmar's generals, there's no evidence that they are feeling the heat.

In late May, it was disclosed that authorities in Myanmar had freed seven soldiers who were convicted of massacring Rohingya civilians, after they had served less than a year of their 10-year sentences.

The two Reuters journalists who exposed the details of the crime to the world served 16 months in a Myanmar prison.

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Free heroin

People in a Vancouver neighbourhood who are hooked on heroin say a health clinic's unorthodox approach to treating them has saved their lives, reporter Nick Purdon writes.

The first thing you notice when you walk the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside with Kurt Lock is that pretty much everyone knows him.

He explains that when you're the guy who can get people free heroin, it does wonders for your popularity.

Lock is the research coordinator at the Crosstown Clinic, the only one in the country that prescribes diacetylmorphine — the medical term for heroin.

The Crosstown Clinic’s research coordinator, Kurt Lock, says the focus is on improving the quality of life of people dependent on heroin, and this has positive benefits for society as a whole. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Twice a day, the 140 chronic long-time opioid users who visit the clinic are given a syringe of the drug — for each of them, other treatments such as methadone haven't worked.

"There's an overdose crisis going on in Canada," Lock says. And then he hits me with a statistic that brings home what he's talking about.

There have been so many opioid-related deaths in British Columbia that the average life expectancy in the province is going down.

Think about that for a moment.

As for the 140 spots at the Crosstown Clinic where he works, they're "a drop in the bucket." Lock says to meet demand, five more clinics would have to be opened.

Twice a day Kieran Collins injects prescription-grade heroin at the Crosstown clinic in Vancouver. It's just enough of a dose so that he doesn't go into withdrawal. 'It's not like this makes the problem just go away,' Collins says, but it allows him to function and he says the program has saved his life. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

But as we keep walking, I can't help but wonder — is it really a solution to expand a program that gives out free heroin and doesn't push people to quit? After all, isn't heroin a poison?

Lock shakes his head.

"If you have a clean, regulated supply, the drug itself it's not harmful for you," he says.

"I won't say it is good for you, but someone could live to be 100 years old and use heroin every day if it's not tainted with any contaminants."

Lock says the idea of the clinic is to attract users by providing them with heroin so they don't have to turn to potentially tainted street drugs, and then once they are in a health care setting, address the issues that led to their addiction in the first place.

Watch the documentary about Vancouver's Crosstown Clinic and meet the people running and using it in the coming days on The National.

- Nick Purdon

A few words on ... 

Living in the moment.

Quote of the moment

"The instrument that generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers' flute. Very agitated children calmed down almost instantly, their attention was drawn to the music."

- University of Geneva researcher Lara Lordier explains a new study that found that specially composed music can help reduce the stress levels of premature babies and  improve their brain development.

What The National is reading

  • Hong Kong leader signals extradition bill will go forward (CBC)
  • Attack on Mali village kills 100 (BBC)
  • North Korean defectors sold as cyber sex slaves (CNN)
  • Iran has accelerated uranium enrichment, IAEA says (Reuters)
  • Deadly start to 'civil disobedience' campaign in Sudan (France 24)
  • Tree planted to mark Trump-Macron friendship dies (Guardian)
  • Former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz recovering after being shot in back (CBC)
  • Florida motorcyclist killed by lightning strike to the head (Fox News)

Today in history

June 10, 2003: Gay marriage legalized in Ontario

Four years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that any provincial law that denied equal benefits to same-sex couples was unconstitutional, and 11 months after a lower court recognized same-sex marriage, the weddings finally started in Ontario. Michael Stark and Michael Leshner, who were a central part of the court challenge, were the first — tying the knot after 22 years as a couple and celebrating with champagne.

Michael Leshner and Michael Stark become the first couple to be legally married in a same-sex ceremony in Toronto. 4:00

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.