Bibeau expresses cautious support for deal on displaced Rohingya Muslims

The agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh covering the return of Rohingya Muslim refugees is a step in the right direction but needs to meet several conditions before it is implemented, Canada’s International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Thursday.

Minister says it's too early to talk about Canada sanctioning military and civilian officials

A Rohingya Muslim girl carries a vegetable from the market on the outskirts of Kutupalong refugee camp on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, in Bangladesh. Since late August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh, seeking safety from what the military described as "clearance operations." (The Associated Press)

The agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh covering the return of Rohingya Muslim refugees is a step in the right direction but needs to meet several conditions before it is implemented, says Canada's International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, announced the agreement Thursday but didn't provide details on how many Rohingya refugees who have fled a brutal crackdown in the country's Rakhine state would be allowed to return home. 

More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when Burmese security forces began what they called "clearance operations" following an attack on 30 police posts by a group of Rohingya militants.

Bangladesh officials said the repatriations will start within two months.

'A good thing in principle'

Speaking to reporters from Bangladesh, where she also visited Rohingya refugee camps, Bibeau said the agreement was "a good thing" in principle.

"We haven't seen the terms of the agreement, but we hope we would see what was recommended in the Kofi Annan report: that the rights of the refugees would be respected; that they would be going back voluntarily," Bibeau said.

Presented just a day before the Myanmar military launched its latest crackdown, the report, by the former United Nations secretary general, recommended that the Myanmar government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of Rohingya Muslims in the majority-Buddhist country and hold human rights abusers accountable.

Devil in the details

The office of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday's deal follows a formula set in a 1992 repatriation agreement where the Rohingya were required to present residency documents, which few have, before being allowed to return to Myanmar.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude says Canada will spend $35 million over five years to help Bangladesh address the needs of women and girls. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Bibeau said many of the Rohingya refugees she spoke to told her that they would be willing to go back to Myanmar but only if their basic human and property rights were protected.

"They want to have the right to work, they want their kids to go to school, this is what they've been telling me," Bibeau said.

The minister said it was too early to talk about sanctioning Burmese military and civilian officials who are involved in what the UN described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

"Definitely something will have to be done," Bibeau said. "We're talking about humanitarian assistance and basic human rights."

While praising Bangladesh for hosting over a million Rohingya refugees, Bibeau said security and living conditions in the camps need to be improved.

Bibeau said she was told by a women she met at the camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, that they don't eat or drink anything in the afternoon because they are terrified of going to the communal latrines at night for fear of sexual assaults and violence.

Counting on Canadian generosity

While in Bangladesh, Bibeau announced a $35 million initiative to improve awareness of and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for nearly two million women and girls in Bangladesh.

In this image provided by Myanmar's Ministry of Information, Myanmar's Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe, right, and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmud Ali exchange notes after signing an agreement on Thursday covering the return of Rohingya Muslims. (Myanmar Information Ministry/The Associated Press)

The five-year project, which is separate from Canada's already announced funding for Rohingya refugees, will also provide expectant mothers, newborns and children with essential health services and is expected to save more than 15,500 lives, Bibeau said.

Canada has already contributed over $25 million to the UN and humanitarian agencies working on the frontlines of the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Speaking to Radio Canada International from Cox's Bazar, Bill Chambers, CEO and president of Save the Children, praised Ottawa's efforts and urged Canadians to show their generosity.

"This is not a short-term problem," Chambers said, speaking on behalf of the Humanitarian Coalition, an umbrella group of seven Canadian humanitarian NGOs. "The process of creating a safe environment for these people will take some time."

The immediate needs are safe drinking water and sanitation, food and shelter, he said.

But Chambers said in the longer term, the refugees, especially young women and girls, will need help dealing with the physical and psychological effects of trauma they've suffered.

"Almost every child has seen and experienced things that no child ever should," Chambers said. "They have told us of massacres, multiple rapes, abductions and seeing family members burnt alive."

Canada’s new special envoy to Myanmar Bob Rae discusses his new role, upcoming trip to assess the conflict 10:11

With files from The Associated Press