‘Golden Games’ should inspire CHOGM to solve refugee crisis in Bangladesh

By Tim Costello
Myanmar-Bangladesh refugee crisis

Let’s hope when Malcolm Turnbull landed in London this week he packed a sizeable chunk of the awesome spirit that’s been displayed over the past fortnight as the Gold Coast hosted the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

The brouhaha over the closing ceremony notwithstanding, the ‘Golden Games’ was a refreshing blast of collective goodwill in an otherwise pretty miserable world.

From the fabulously relaxed spectacle of the Opening Ceremony, to the moving scene after the women’s 10,000 metres when three Aussie athletes deliberately lingered for several minutes at the finishing line to congratulate Lesotho upon completion of her race, the Games have shown what human beings can achieve when they care enough to follow through.

Turnbull, who is meeting with his fellow heads of Commonwealth Governments this week, should use this spirit of solidarity to inspire the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to help the Bangladeshi government to craft a lasting and humane solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

This staggering situation isn’t going away and can’t be ignored. As the monsoon season approaches, the lives of more than 870,000 refugees – currently crowded into an area the size of Sorrento – depend on swift action.

Thirty-year-old mother, Ayesha, living in a tiny shelter made of bamboo sticks and plastic tarps on top of an eroding hillside in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She is typical of those the CHOGM participants should be urgently seeking to assist. Ayesha’s husband died during the violence in Myanmar last August. Now she lives in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in the camp, trying to provide for her four children and two other women living under her flimsy roof.

“I’m worried our shelter won’t hold up when the rains arrive. We can’t live well here or have proper food, but at least we’re not afraid that we’ll be shot,” she says.

More than 2.5 metres of rain is expected to fall on Cox’s Bazaar between June and August. There’s a good chance a cyclone will hit the area. Aid workers— not athletes— are now racing against the clock to strengthen shelters and prepare refugees, including half a million children, for the approaching monsoon season.

This coming crisis should be front and centre on the agenda of the biennial CHOGM, themed “towards a common future”. As the Commonwealth’s focus shifts away from the sweat and tears of the sporting field to the formality and order of meeting rooms, its leaders’ minds should turn to what needs to happen to ensure the safety of nearly a million refugees who just want to live in peace.

Bangladesh has a well-established system for responding to disasters, including monsoon floods and landslides; however, the influx of refugees into Cox’s Bazaar has more than doubled the original population of this small south-east corner of Bangladesh. The government’s ability to protect the refugees and the surrounding communities during the monsoons will be sorely tested.

Refugees in Cox’s Bazar have not been granted formal refugee status, which would allow basic protections like freedom of movement, and open the option of third country resettlement. These same people were also stateless in their own home back in Myanmar.

Now is the time for Commonwealth leaders to demonstrate the same collective goodwill, commitment and endurance that their athletes displayed at the Games. As a first step, they should support the Government of Bangladesh to develop a sustainable, long-term solution to the crises, working with the Government of Myanmar and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

It’s important we don’t forget that Commonwealth countries, including Australia, have been supportive. The Australian Government increased its aid funding last year to $30 million, which has helped shelter, feed and support many of the 870,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. But the inconvenient truth is the need for support doesn’t stop there.

CHOGM leaders, including Turnbull, should offer Bangladesh the resources and support needed to create the necessary enabling environment for humanitarian organisations who are working against the clock to save lives. In advance of the monsoon season, this must include appropriate permissions for them to cyclone-proof the camps, and best prepare and protect the refugee community from potential floods and mudslides. The most important race of 2018 – the race to save nearly a million lives – is yet to be won.