Australia must act immediately to protect the Rohingya people

By Sohini Mehta
Rohingya camp in Sittwe

Members of Myanmar’s army and police have killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, gang-raped women and girls and forced about 90,000 Rohingya from their homes, according to the first official United Nations account of a four-month government crackdown on Rohingya in Myanmar.

The 50-page report, released on February 3, said the actions of members of the army and the police indicate the “very likely” commission of crimes against humanity. One 19-year-old woman told investigators she saw soldiers kill a new-born baby by stamping on the stomach of a pregnant relative while she was in labour. Another witness described the slaughter of an eight-month-old baby while his mother was gang-raped by five security officers.

The vast majority of the 204 interviewees had experienced multiple internal and cross-border displacements, as well as multiple violations: one family may have had members who were killed, beaten, raped and disappeared, while at the same time their home was burned and plundered.

Most Rohingya lack the documentation to satisfy the requirements of the Citizenship Act of 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. Much of their land has been confiscated and most live in highly restricted designated areas with little support from Yangon, largely in northern Rakhine State near the border with Bangladesh.

Last week, a Malaysian ship carrying 2,300 tonnes of aid for Rohingya Muslims was met by Buddhist protesters when it docked in Yangon and barred from sailing to Rakhine’s state capital, Sittwe.

Perhaps some in Yangon believe that if the Rohingya are marginalised, persecuted, deprived of basic rights and abused, they will move en masse to Bangladesh – where many believe they originate from – and their ethnic identity will gradually fade.

What is more likely is that the Rohingya population will continue to grow and, faced with systematic violence and repression, there will be more irregular cross-border movements with a concomitant increase in illicit activities as the Rohingya navigate their status as illegal migrants.

Australia should act to protect Rohingya

The Australian Government has rewarded Myanmar for the steps it has made towards democratic reform by easing sanctions and increasing investment to an estimated $59.8 million in overseas development assistance to Myanmar in 2016-17. Yet its failure to use its diplomatic clout and leverage over Myanmar to ensure protection and recognition of the rights of Rohingya undermines democracy and stability in the region.

Not coincidentally, the current crisis in Rakhine State has intensified during Myanmar’s widely hailed process of democratic reform after decades of military dictatorship. The country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally does not control the army or police. Ministries Ms Suu Kyi does control and officials she directly employs, however, are lambasting the international media for reports that highlight the plight of the Rohingya and echoing the denials of Myanmar’s army.

Under the rubric of maintaining order against the threat ostensibly posed by Rohingya extremists, the government seeks to legitimise the persisting centrality of the military in politics. Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has referred the UN report to an existing commission headed by Vice President U Myint Swe, but previous dismissals of evidence have largely destroyed its credibility. An earlier state-sanctioned investigation was led by Rakhine politician Aung Win, who laughed off allegations that soldiers raped Rohingya women because Rohingya “are very dirty”.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said an independent commission of inquiry would be necessary to meet international standards. Australia should support the establishment of a transparent and expeditious commission of inquiry into the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine and push for a tribunal supported by the International Criminal Court to hold to account Myanmar’s army and police.

Rohingya refugees need a regional solution

In demanding absolute impenetrability of its borders, Australia has diverted stateless Rohingya to countries that were once primarily transit rather than destination countries. As many as 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh during decades of persecution in Myanmar and as of 5 January this year, about 65,000 Rohingya had arrived in Bangladesh since 9 October 2016.

The Bangladeshi Government plans to transfer tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to Thengar Char, an undeveloped island in the Bay of Bengal prone to monsoonal flooding, despite warnings the site is uninhabitable. Bangladesh is neither a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor to its 1967 Protocol and has not enacted any national legislation on asylum and refugee matters.

Rather than investing in mechanisms to deter irregular people movements, the government must improve asylum procedures.

Considering the difficulties in ensuring compliance with international standards of protection in countries where there is no law regulating refugee status itself, the Australian Government should work together with regional governments and other resettlement states to develop a regional strategy for the resettlement of Rohingya refugees.

A durable solution requires an increase and a regional shift in Australia’s annual humanitarian refugee intake. Australian policymakers should also review the widespread and prolonged use of immigration detention. In the absence of a statutory statelessness status determination procedure attached to a clear visa outcome, stateless Rohingya face prolonged indefinite detention or a precarious existence on a temporary bridging visa.

Rather than investing in mechanisms to deter irregular people movements, the government must improve asylum procedures and broaden access to funded legal assistance for asylum seekers. Amidst cuts to funding, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service must rely on private benevolence to raise $135, 000 to cover 1350 hours of interpreters’ services for 150 waitlisted Rohingya clients.

Discussion of regional solutions has so far focused primarily on overcoming the problem of returning the Rohingya to Myanmar. But the Australian Government could demonstrate a real commitment to protecting Rohingya by facilitating the resettlement of Rohingya refugees as a matter of urgency, and allocating resources to help process the cases of Rohingya already in the asylum-seeking pipelines or detention.