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Politics Federal government pledges $300-million in aid to Rohingya; figure falls short of Rae’s request

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland makes an announcement and holds a media availability on Canada’s response to the Rohingya crisis at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on May 23, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government will commit $300-million over the next three years to help respond to the Rohingya refugee crisis that has forced more than 700,000 members of the ethnic minority to flee violence in Myanmar.

However, the foreign-aid funding announcement fell short of a recommendation made by Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, who recently urged the government to invest $600-million over four years for humanitarian and development efforts in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government closely considered Mr. Rae’s recommendations in its response to his report.

“While our actions do not agree … with each dotted ‘I’ and comma and semicolon in Bob’s report, I feel very much that we are acting in the spirit and in the direction of Bob’s report. The amount of money that we are committing is a very significant amount … relevant to this crisis,” Ms. Freeland told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.

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Mr. Rae said that while he did not expect the government to accept all 17 of his recommendations, Ottawa’s response is a good start.

“I think they understand the need for a more comprehensive approach and the need to look beyond any one issue and see that there’s a number of things that have to be done together,” Mr. Rae said.

The $300-million will fund efforts to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations against the Rohingya, which Ms. Freeland described as “ethnic cleansing,” to account.

The most recent violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state began in August, 2017, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base. Myanmar’s military responded with a violent crackdown, triggering an exodus of Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Canada’s new funding will also support a political solution for what has been a decades-long crisis and help improve conditions in the crowded Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Ms. Freeland, who visited the camps earlier this month, described how Rohingya women try to protect themselves from their attackers, who use rape as a weapon of war.

“They described covering their faces in mud to be less attractive as prey,” Ms. Freeland recounted.

The government said it will work the United Nations refugee agency and the Bangladeshi government to explore the potential for resettling some Rohingya refugees in Canada. Ms. Freeland did not say how many Rohingya may eventually come to Canada or when that would happen. Bangladesh must first agree to provide exit visas for the Rohingya so they can leave the country.

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“We’ve started talking with the government of Bangladesh because the process is fairly complex. However, I wish to highlight that the central objective – the real target – is to allow the Rohingya to go home and that’s what the Rohingya themselves want,” Ms. Freeland said in French.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties continue to urge the Liberal government to step up its response to the Rohingya crisis. The NDP tabled a motion in the House of Commons Wednesday calling on the government to support a referral of the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council; the motion received unanimous support from all MPs.

Garnett Genuis, Conservative deputy foreign-affairs critic, said Canada must couple its humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis with political pressure on the Myanmar military and government, including its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms. Suu Kyi, an honorary Canadian citizen and Nobel laureate, and the country’s military has come under international pressure to end the violence, but she does not have any control over the military under Myanmar’s constitution.

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