'Unspeakable trauma': Freeland visits Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said her visit Friday to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh left her “more convinced than ever of the necessity of a comprehensive, international response to this tragedy.”

'Those responsible must be held to account,' Freeland says

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers at a Rohingya refugee camp at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on May 4, 2018. (Chrystia Freeland/Twitter)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said her visit Friday to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh left her "more convinced than ever of the necessity of a comprehensive, international response to this tragedy."

Freeland is on a four-day visit to Bangladesh. She's set to address the upcoming 45th Session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers in the capital Dhaka on the unfolding Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

During her tour of the camps in the Cox's Bazar region of southeastern Bangladesh, Freeland visited the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital, where she discussed the challenges involved in treating the refugees. She praised the medical volunteers for the progress they've made in treating the most vulnerable, including survivors of sexual violence.

​The camps are home to nearly 900,000 minority Muslim Rohingyas who have fled a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakine State in neighbouring Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"Rohingya refugees bear the scars of unspeakable trauma at the hands of their oppressors," Freeland tweeted on her personal Twitter account. "Every day, more are arriving at camps in Bangladesh. Their stories must be heard. Those responsible must be held to account."

In another tweet, Freeland thanked humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies working to address the plight of the Rohingya, such as the MSF, UN migration and refugee agencies and the Red Cross.

"I leave Cox's Bazar more convinced than ever of the necessity of a comprehensive, international response to this tragedy," she said.

On Saturday, Freeland will become the first minister from a non-member country to addresses the Session of the OIC's Council of Foreign Ministers, the 57-member body that acts as the collective voice of the Muslim world.

A Rohingya refugee child sleeps in a cradle inside a makeshift house at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, April 28, 2018. (A.M. Ahad/The Associated Press)

'Crimes against humanity'

"We are eager to discuss how we can take action with OIC partners to support the Rohingya, who faced unspeakable persecution and who have been the victims of crimes against humanity," Freeland said in a media statement.

Along with international partners, Freeland said, Canada will work to establish a clear pathway toward accountability for the atrocities and human rights violations committed in Rakhine State and coordinate efforts to build lasting peace in Myanmar.

She will be accompanied in Dhaka by Bob Rae, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's special envoy to Myanmar, and Ambassador Masud Husain, Canada's special envoy to the OIC.

Last month, Rae unveiled his final report on the crisis. It calls on Canada to take a leadership role in responding to the needs of the Rohingya Muslim minority fleeing the brutal crackdown led by Burmese security forces in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

"Canada's response should focus on providing humanitarian assistance, education, supporting infrastructure and mitigating the impact of the violent deportation on Rohingya women and girls by providing strong support to UN and other international organizations working in camps and elsewhere," Rae said in his April 3 report.

"Education in particular should become a priority for our longer-term approach."

The report also calls on Canada to develop a multi-year funding plan to address the crisis; Rae estimated the cost at about $150 million over the next four years.

The monsoon threat

Freeland's visit also comes as the United Nations and NGOs are scrambling to prepare for the beginning of a monsoon season that is expected to wreak havoc in the camps, which are built on hilly terrain vulnerable to landslides and flash floods.

The United Nations' International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 150,000 Rohingya in Cox's Bazar face life-threatening risks from landslides and floods, and thousands more are at risk of disease and being cut off from assistance.

The UN's joint response plan launched in March calls for $951 million US to assist 1.3 million people, including 884,000 Rohingya refugees and 336,000 host community members.

Freeland has meetings with various Bangladeshi government officials to discuss further steps to address this dire situation, Global Affairs said in a media release.

Since the beginning of 2017, Ottawa has provided more than $45.9 million to deliver the desperately needed humanitarian assistance to thousands of people in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In addition, individual Canadians have raised $12.5 million for the Myanmar Crisis Relief Fund, set up to respond to the Rohingya crisis.

About the Author

Levon Sevunts

Radio Canada International

Levon Sevunts is a reporter/producer for Radio Canada International. Born and raised in Armenia, he immigrated to Canada in 1992. As a print and broadcast journalist he has covered major stories in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Darfur, the Sahara and the High Arctic, as well as his home of Montreal.

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