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Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tours the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp during a rainstorm on May 4. It is home to many of the Rohingya who have fled violence in Myanmar in recent months.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

The ongoing persecution of Rohingya people in Myanmar is “one of the great atrocities being committed right now in our time,” Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister said Friday after spending a day inside the world’s largest refugee camp.

More than 600,000 Rohingya now live in bamboo-and-plastic homes on dirt terraces cut into the hills of the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in Bangladesh. It is the primary home for the 687,000 people who recently fled Myanmar, where hundreds of villages have been razed and, Rohingya advocates say, as many as one in 10 women have been raped. Today, most of the refugees in Bangladesh are wholly dependent on humanitarian aid for even the basics of life. In the camp, sewage must be removed with baskets.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did not come here with promises of new cash.

“It’s a lot of money and there are a lot of problems in the world and these decisions need to be taken carefully and thoughtfully,” Ms. Freeland said Friday.

Bob Rae, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s special envoy to Myanmar, has called for $150-million in Canadian funding over four years, a central pillar of his recommendations for helping the Rohingya, a largely stateless Muslim people. (Canada has already contributed $45.9-million since the beginning of 2017.) The United Nations says it needs US$951-million this year alone to maintain food, shelter and medical services for the refugees; as of April 30, just 16 per cent of that had been received.

Ms. Freeland, however, said the Canadian government is “seized with” the plight of the Rohingya. Mr. Trudeau has invited Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the G7 summit in Quebec this June to raise the international profile of the issue. Ms. Freeland also pointed to her arrival in Bangladesh this week as a sign of “my very strong commitment to strong Canadian action.”

On Friday, she spent several hours in Kutupalong, walking along paths made of dirt and burlap bags, waving to children and speaking with people, including women who described being victims of sexual assault in Myanmar. One woman said soldiers had intentionally destroyed toilets, forcing women to walk to more distant latrines where they could be abused.

The Rohingya exodus began after a harsh military response to attacks on police posts by an armed Rohingya group on Aug. 25, 2017. But people continue to flee Myanmar – more than 8,000 in 2018. They have described a continued campaign of persecution, including a new curfew that bars them from using lights after 6 p.m. and draconian limits on harvesting crops and firewood or moving between villages. One woman said she subsisted on forest fruit for months before leaving.

It is “truly horrifying that people are still being so persecuted that they are continuing to flee,” Ms. Freeland said.

Canada is not considering revoking the honorary citizenship of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government, which has no real control over the country’s military, the chief actor in the campaign against the Rohingya.

But, Ms. Freeland said, “I do think that everyone in government in Myanmar bears moral responsibility for what is happening, and that includes Aung San Suu Kyi. And frankly, even more so because so many of us have admired her so much.

“This is clearly a crime against humanity. This is ethnic cleansing,” she added.

That’s not enough for advocates who have called for condemnation in the harshest possible terms. “Canada must say this is genocide,” said Tin Soe, executive editor of Kaladan Press Network, which calls itself the first Rohingya news agency. And individual sanctions should be imposed against Ms. Suu Kyi herself, added Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer. The two met with Ms. Freeland on Friday.

Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Convention, meaning it is not formally under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but Ms. Freeland said the court should nonetheless be involved.

“True, serious international bodies investigating and documenting what has happened – naming names, holding people accountable – that is absolutely essential,” she said, adding that she supports creating an “international, impartial and independent mechanism,” similar to the one in place for investigating and prosecuting crimes in Syria. It “would be great” if such a body was in place this year, she said.

But Ms. Freeland’s disinclination to discuss financial contributions leaves the greatest question regarding Canada’s role unanswered.

If sufficient money does not arrive, “water distribution stops,” warned Manuel Pereira, emergency co-ordinator with the International Organization for Migration in Bangladesh. “Medical teams stop. People to do identification of vulnerable individuals stops. Protection of women [and] children stops.”

The need is particularly acute given the imminent arrival of monsoon season. On Friday, Ms. Freeland walked through a sudden rainstorm, a small taste of the torrential rains that in most years deposit 2 1/2 metres of precipitation on the area in three months.

Later, she arrived at a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital where doctors were treating two young sisters recovering after they were buried in a landslide. A third, eight-year-old sister had died only hours before, the first direct casualty of the monsoon rains seen at the centre. The doctors expect more deaths as the hilly land denuded of trees gives way during the downpours to come.

“We need rapid funds, especially with the emergencies coming up. Funds coming in late and slowly and trickling in will not be as helpful as if they are received immediately,” said Sumbul Rizvi, senior co-ordinator with the Inter Sector Coordination Group, which oversees the efforts of various international agencies.

Twelve-year-old Zohra Begum describes fleeing violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State, during a meeting with members of the U.N. Security Council in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar.


It is not enough for Canada to act merely as a broker attempting to assemble international support, said Mr. Rae, in Bangladesh this week for his third visit in the past six months.

“I don’t think we can legitimately hope to persuade other countries to do more if we’re not prepared to do more ourselves,” he said.

“That’s really the challenge to the government. So what are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to put up more?”

Ottawa is preparing to release a detailed response to Mr. Rae’s report, Tell Them We’re Human, in the coming days, Mr. Rae said. He has yet to see it. “I’m hoping that they accept the need to implement my recommendations,” he said.

As for Ms. Freeland, she acknowledged that “history will judge the world, will judge us all, by what we’re doing.”

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