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Bob Rae on Rohingyas: ‘Somebody has to be held responsible’

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CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Saturday, November 4, 2017 4:57PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, November 4, 2017 7:45PM EDT

Since arriving in southern Bangladesh’s refugee camps, Canada’s newly-appointed special envoy to Myanmar has heard horrific accounts of violence against Rohingya refugees, including bombings by military helicopters, beheadings and attacks on women and children.

“I’d like to be able to say (these things) are unimaginable, but unfortunately, in the world we live in today, they’re imaginable,” the former Ontario premier and prominent Liberal told CTV’s Daniele Hamamdjian.

Since August, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims and other minorities have made the perilous journey from Myanmar into Bangladesh to avoid what the United Nations has called a case of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” and “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis and a major humanitarian emergency”

“People are so deeply traumatized and hurt by what’s happened,” said Rae, who was appointed special envoy to Myanmar on Oct. 23.

Without cameras and staff present, Rae met with 12 Rohingya women who shared their experiences in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. He says the refugees detailed horrific violence including sexual assault, aerial bombings, beheadings and attacks on children with machetes. Rae says the nature of these harrowing stories has been consistent.

Another thing that has struck the special envoy: “Where are all the men?” he says. “What happened to them?”

One man in the camp, Jahid Hossain, told CTV News that he managed to escape only because he had a warning.

“My boss is a good man and he told me to take my wife and kids and leave because there would be a massacre,” Hossain said.

It’s stories like these that Rae will present to officials in Myanmar and to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of next week’s APEC meeting in Vietnam.

“I think Mr. Trudeau is known throughout the world as a good-hearted man, and I think he’ll be very heavily impacted by what he sees and what he hears,” Rae said.

“Somebody has to be held responsible for this,” he added.

Despite the mounting refugee population flowing into Bangladesh’s camps, Rae calls the community’s resilience and courage “extraordinary.” Children, who make up more than half of the refugee population, are carrying on with everyday life. Refugees are building homes and mosques, and schooling is being provided.

“Life goes on – it has to go on, but the point is it has to go on in better conditions than this,” Rae said. “I had one wonderful conversation with a few men who were standing around, and they said ‘why are you here?’ and I said ‘we need to make this place livable … and that’s a big challenge because this is the fastest growing group of refugees anywhere in the world right now.”

Among the concerns Rae discussed were that of health care and poor infrastructure. Rae says there’s a potential for landslides and localized flooding at the camps. And with a growing population and limited access to good health care, the spread of disease is also a threat.

During his time in Bangladesh and Myanmar, Rae says he’ll mainly be spending his trip speaking with NGOs who have a lot of information from the ground.

Jean-Jacques Simon, UNICEF South Asia’s regional chief of communication, is happy he’s there.

“It’s important that Bob Rae comes here, speaks for the authorities, sees for himself what’s happening here, the needs,” Simon said.

With regard to restitution efforts, Rae says Canada should be closely involved in establishing relationships that make “real progress.”

“I think there’s a lot of work for us to do to work with the government of Bangladesh and to work with the government of Myanmar, along with a number of other likeminded countries to say ‘we’re not going to go away. We’re not going to just disappear. This is not just one trip on one day,’” Rae said.

“And I think anybody who sees a picture of these kids; you can’t leave a place like this and not have a sense of obligation to do whatever you can to make a full life for them possible.”

With a report from CTV’s Daniele Hamamdjian on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border

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Bob Rae on Rohingyas: ‘Somebody has to be held responsible’

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