As It Happens

Bob Rae describes 'appalling' conditions and widespread trauma at Rohingya refugee camps

Canada's special envoy on the Rohingya crisis issued an interim report describing the plight of people forced from their homes by the thousands.
Kulsuma Begum, 40, a Rohingya refugee, cries because she has lost her daughter and she said her husband and son-in-law were killed by military in Myanmar. Bob Rae says the world needs to investigate alleged war crimes against the Rohingya Muslims. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
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Bob Rae is calling on Canada and the international community to investigate alleged war crimes against the Rohingya people of Myanmar.

The former Liberal leader is Canada's special envoy on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, and he issued an interim report last week describing the plight of the Muslim people who were forced from their homes by the hundreds of thousands and are now stuck in crowded, makeshift refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Myanmar's military has denied United Nations allegations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, while the non-profit Doctors Without Borders says 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed between August and September.

Rae travelled to Myanmar and Bangladesh earlier this year to see the situation first hand. He told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann what he saw. Here is part of that conversation

What steps do you think Canada and other nations should be taking right now to address this crisis that's facing the Rohingya?

I've really identified ... three big issues.

The first one is the condition in the camps, which is appalling, and which I fear is going to get worse because of the prospect of changed weather and the possibility of epidemics. 

Rohingya refugees stand at the Palongkhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Dec. 22. Rae says the camps are cramped and not ready for the cold weather that's coming. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

The second big issue is, of course, the political situation in Myanmar itself. There's still a lot of people living in a real vulnerability inside Myanmar — Rohingya in particular, but many other groups — and the political process doesn't seem to have moved as much as everybody had hoped several years ago when the generals yielded up some of, but not all of, their power.

And the third issue, of course, is this issue of accountability and the principle of no impunity, which is now well established in international law. We're going to have to do a better job of collecting evidence and making sure that we're going to be able to hold people responsible for what's clearly gone terribly wrong.

Bob Rae, special envoy to Myanmar, has been tasked with giving the prime minister advice on the Rohingya crisis, which the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Can you describe specifically what you saw [in the refugee camps]?

There's about a million Rohingya refugees living in very, very cramped quarters and cramped space. It's a very chilly territory with most of the trees and shrubbery cut down and used to build temporary shelters. So you've got people packed cheek by jowl and all of the traumatization that you would expect from people having had to leave their homes so suddenly and in such violence.

So you have a highly traumatized population, most of whom are women, living in deep poverty and very uncertain conditions going forward.

Photographers help a Rohingya refugee to come out of Naf River as they cross the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Palong Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 1. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Your interim report describes some of the specific trauma faced by women and girls that you met. Can you share with us some of the stories of what you heard?

People having their houses burnt and forced out of their homes and villages and then being subjected to sexual violence. So you have people being killed, and you have people being raped.

These are crimes against humanity. This simply cannot be allowed to happen without the people accountable being held responsible.

Rohingya refugee children play at the Shamlapur refugee camp in Bangladesh. Rae says women and girls told him they've been subject to trauma and sexual violence. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

A lot of people have pointed to [Myanmar leader] Aung San Suu Kyi and been criticizing her for standing by quietly, even seeming to dismiss some of the concerns that people have. ... I know you've met with her. How strongly did you challenge her about how the government there is dealing with this crisis?

I don't think it's fair to say that she is somehow responsible or that she ordered [this.] I don't see any evidence of that.

What I do see somebody who is, I think, having real challenges dealing with the extent of the violence and the political and military conflict that is controlling her country.

And she really doesn't have control of the key ministries that are, in fact, responsible for what's going on — defence and the border and security in general.

Do you believe that what you've seen constitutes potential war crimes?

If what I have heard and what others have heard and what others have alleged turns out to be the case and can be proven, then yes, they are crimes against humanity.

The use of rape as a tool of war, the abuse of civilians in the course of a conflict — these are all not supposed to happen.

To say nothing ... of the fact that an identified population, the Rohingya, have effectively been forced to leave the country that they call their home.

A Rohingya refugee woman holds a child as she waits for rice delivery at the Nayapara refugee camp. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

But I'm very careful in my report and I'm very careful in my thinking.

It's one thing to say, "This is what this crime is all about." It's another thing to say, "And we know who committed it."

I think we still have a ways to go before we can take those steps.

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