Remember the Rohingyas


Rohingya asylum seekers on a boat, woman holds childThe recently reported deaths at sea of nearly 100 Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar is the starkest reminder that Australia needs to step up its efforts to improve regional protection for asylum seekers and refugees. Without cohesive regional strategies to address the needs of fleeing asylum seekers, the body count will continue to grow, and we must all take some of the blame.

When more than 30 survivors were rescued from the sinking vessel off the coast of Sri Lanka, reportedly en route to Malaysia and Australia, stories emerged of bodies thrown overboard as people died from dehydration and starvation during weeks at sea.

When the Sri Lankan navy rescued another 138 people earlier this month, one person was found dead on board. In recent days, 121 Rohingya asylum seekers were rescued from a boat found drifting off the coast of Indonesia.

In their homeland, Myanmar, the 800,000 Rohingya residents are treated as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, denied basic rights and citizenship and subjected to daily discrimination. Many have fled to Bangladesh over the years but only 30,000 are offered basic assistance in official camps. The other more than 200,000 are treated as illegal Myanmar immigrants, refused aid, and often forced to survive in squalid makeshift sites.

The inter-communal violence that erupted in Myanmar's Rakhine state in June last year has led to greater numbers fleeing in recent months. But attempts to find a safe haven over the nearest border often end in tragedy, with Bangladeshi guards ordered to arrest and return asylum seekers and forcefully turn boats back.

Children are included among those who have died at sea, with one ten-year-old girl recalling, 'we floated in the sea for four days and my younger brother starved to death'.

Other countries are just as unwelcoming. Rohingyas who try to land in Thailand are pushed back out to sea and many have died of starvation. Others are forcibly returned to Myanmar. The Thai Government recently granted six months' temporary stay to more than 1700 recent arrivals, temporarily reducing the need for further boat journeys. But the government claims it will push away future arrivals.

Around 25,000 Rohingyas are registered in Malaysia (more are unregistered) but are refused legal status and live in constant fear of arrest and deportation.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates 13,000 people left Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat last year, 500 of whom  are likely to have died at sea. This year alone, several thousand mostly Rohingyas have boarded boats in the Bay of Bengal, while 115,000 remain displaced by the violence in Myanmar. In December last year, UNHCR had raised only thirty per cent of the funds needed to care for the internally displaced in the first six months of 2013.

As members of a regional and global community, Australia, along with other countries in the region, must stop ignoring the suffering of Rohingya people and stop pretending the problem is someone else's to solve.

Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted and dehumanised minorities in the world and we must do more to ensure no asylum seeker in our region is denied access to a fair refugee determination process or to appropriate and safe living conditions. Temporary and long term solutions must be sought urgently for those in need.

Australia's new immigration minister, Brendan O'Connor, said last week that to address the problem of people using desperate measures to seek asylum, 'we need a regional approach involving countries of origin, transit and destination under the auspices of the Bali Process'. Julia Gillard has previously said her government believes 'the only way to respond to what is a regional problem is to develop regional solutions'.

But in spite of some worthy policy efforts — notably the increase in our humanitarian program to 20,000 places each year — the Gillard Government is not leading by example. Corralling people into tents in Nauru and PNG, while diverting foreign aid to run those camps for small numbers of asylum seekers is not a regional solution. Nauru is not a source, transit or destination country and has no role to play in a genuine regional approach.

Last week, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced a further $2.5 million in emergency aid for Myanmar, with half the money to be spent on much needed shelter, clean water and sanitation in the Rakhine State. But we and other countries need to do much more to assist and draw attention to the persecution, discrimination, and neglect of Rohingya people, both inside and outside Myanmar.

Within Myanmar, Rohingyas must be granted access to the same basic rights as the wider population and allowed to become citizens. Australia must continue to place pressure on the Myanmar government to facilitate processes that will lead to equality, freedom and peace for all ethnicities and religions. Australia must take immediate action to drive multifaceted protection strategies for people who seek safe haven outside Myanmar.

In Jakarta next month, governments and NGOs will attend a UNHCR facilitated regional discussion on irregular sea movements. UNHCR hopes the meeting will lead to progress on cooperative approaches that 'could offer asylum seekers and refugees an alternative to dangerous and exploitative boat journeys'.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has called for 'a far more concerted effort by countries of the region both with regard to addressing the causes and to preventing lives being lost'. If Australia is genuinely committed to finding regional solutions and saving lives at sea, we must bring more to the table than empty words and Pacific island diversion policies that punish rather than protect vulnerable refugees.

Susan Metcalfe headshotSusan Metcalfe has written widely on refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. 

Topic tags: Susan Metcalfe, asylum seekers, Rohingya



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Existing comments

WE are the exploiters though, no-one else. And it is not our business to stop people on the seas, we don't own them. And those Rohingya were not coming here, the told journos who actually interviewed them that they were on the way to Malaysia to join others from their village. What we have to do is stop the incessant whining about regional protection which is code for don't come here.
Marilyn | 01 March 2013

As you say, Susan, the Rohingyas are among the most unfortunate, discriminated against and persecuted minority people on earth. They also, due to their situation in Myanmar, do not have access to the (expensive) smuggling networks available to other refugee groups. Myanmar is a racist country pure and simple. They are not Burmese nor Buddhist and suffer like the Shan, Karens and Kachin. Great pressure needs to be put on the new, supposedly more "liberal" government there to try to ensure that all minorities within are properly treated. For most Rohingyas, fleeing is an extremely dangerous option. They are, like Palestinians who were born in refugee camps, worthy of some special treatment by potential host countries such as ours.
Edward F | 01 March 2013

Marilyn is right. The attempt by Australian politicians to focus on a 'regional solution' is really an attempt to divert attention from our own xenophobic response to immigrants. Why is it that the free movement of capital, goods, and information across international borders is encouraged, but not the free movement of people?
Ginger Meggs | 01 March 2013

not that it's the point, but Rohingya people now in Sri Lanka have said they were coming to Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia but reports now say it has been established they were coming to Australia. The above commenter is not reporting the facts. But it doesn't matter where they were intending to land, the region and the rest of the world should offer up options and not expect them to float around the world trying to find someone who cares. Of course australia, malaysia, thailand and other should be working together to aid the thousands of Rohingyas and others who need protection and compassion. Comments that claim no-one except australia is exploiting these people are wrong. Just ask the Rohingya people and ask them whether they want countries in the region to offer them assistance. The conditions they endure in Thailand and Malaysia for example are cruel and degrading. People who don't want to look past our borders for answers are indulging their own personal politics. It's just another way of denying the existence of persecuted groups who are turned away by everyone. Saying that it is not our business to help refugees who are dying trying to find safety is unfathomable. The only way forward is to see everyone's politics for what they are, disengage from the domestic fights, and look to what will best help the people who need help. As for the comment about the Aus govt focusing on a regional solution, they are not - Nauru is not a regional solution.
MM | 01 March 2013

They were not coming to Australia, the only source of that claim was the criminal Sri Lankan government. They wanted to go to Malaysia to work. Shofiulla said he is a second-year student studying microbiology, but that his university was closed last July after the violence erupted. "We can't go back to our country ... our government kills Muslims ... we are afraid to go back. We want to go to a safe place," said Shofiulla, who appeared to be the only English-speaking person in the group. He said they wanted to go to Malaysia to find jobs, following in the footsteps of others from his village. He said 25 people were now in the detention centre while eight others were still hospitalised But while that 97 deaths is terrible on the same day 20,000 kids died of starvation and preventable disease and didn't raise a mention. We have to stop this obsession with people drowning while ignoring that people die every day.
Marilyn | 01 March 2013

Marilyn, it's a shame you are so obsessed with boats and wanting everyone to ignore deaths at sea. Hard to see the humanity in that. Rohingya people face daily horrors wherever they go and deserve as much help as anyone else. They are not all economic migrants as you suggest - they do need to earn money to feed their families but the violence they flee is real. The same with Sri Lankan people coming here, some are coming for economic reasons but others, although they want to work, are fleeing persecution. One google search to quote one person's words does not an expert make. If you research the subject, contact people involved, weigh up all the contradictory evidence and news reports, then you might have something. If you are really concerned about children dying of starvation why not write about that and not boats?
MM | 02 March 2013

It's not me obsessed with boat people, it is politicians and lazy media. As for pretending we care if they drown, that might wash if we hadn't let them drown and if 140,000 kids a week were not dying of starvation while we squander $2 billion a year to jail a few thousand innocent people.
Marilyn | 04 March 2013

Will this debate ever stop. When will we see that we are destroying our sense of dignity as humans by treating the most vulnerable so shamefully.Is there no room to embrace with dignity the stranger and the outcast. If Christ came to show us anything it was just that. Don't call me a naive idealist. Call me a Christian.
graham patison | 02 June 2013


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