Source of 97% of refugees in Australia’s 11 nearest neighbours
According to current UNHCR statistics, 97% of the refugees and people seeking asylum in Bangladesh and the 10 member states of the ASEAN region are originally from Myanmar. As at 1 January 2017, UNHCR estimated that Bangladesh was hosting 276,207 refugees but says that this number has increased by more than 520,000 as a result of recent violence in northern Rakhine state.
Of the 275,300 refugees and people seeking asylum in the ASEAN region, 239,700 were originally from Myanmar – 102,887 in Thailand, 135,856 in Malaysia and 954 in Indonesia. In total, these 11 states host 1.07 million refugees and people seeking asylum, of which 1.034 million (97%) are from Myanmar and only 35,500 from the rest of the world. In Bangladesh, nearly all refugees are Rohingya while in South East Asia three-quarters of UNHCR-registered refugees from Myanmar (182,500 of 239,700) are from other ethnic groups – particularly Karen, Chin, Karenni, Shan and Mon.
Myanmar is critical to Australia’s regional strategy on refugee issues
While the current Australian Government policy is based on the belief that irregular movement in the region is “not regionally sourced”, this is clearly not the case. Any effective Australian strategy to address refugee needs in the region must focus particularly on Myanmar. Durable solutions for the 35,500 refugees in the region from countries other than Myanmar would be much easier to find if there were an effective regional response to the one million refugees from Myanmar. As with any refugee situation, an effective regional strategy would need to address:
- The root causes of displacement.
- Humanitarian aid and logistical support to the nations hosting large refugee populations.
- An effective role for resettlement in protecting refugees at greatest risk and demonstrating practical support to host nations; and
- Supporting all opportunities to build peace in the source country, to maximise any opportunity for refugees to consider the possibility and viability of returning in safety.
Australia should simultaneously be working on a strong and effective response to the mass displacement of Rohingya people while also examining the peace-building strategies needed to support long-term return for refugees and internally displaced people from other ethnic groups.
Responding to the violence in Rakhine state
The president of the UN Human Rights Council, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, described the recent treatment of Rohingya in Rakhine state as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Hundreds of Rohingya people have been killed, 200 villages destroyed and more than 520,000 refugees have crossed the Bangladesh border, many being maimed or killed by landmines as they flee. Rakhine community members have raised concerns about 30,000 IDPs of Rakhine and other ethnic groups who have also been displaced by the violence and have been left without humanitarian support.
Australia and other nations in the region must work together to apply pressure on the government of Myanmar. Community organisations are calling for Myanmar to:
- End the violence in Rakhine state.
- Provide immediate access to humanitarian NGOs to provide support to all displaced people.
- Allow UN peacekeeping forces to be allowed in Rakhine state.
- Immediately desist from anti-Rohingya rhetoric which is fuelling tensions.
- Begin repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, rebuilding destroyed villages.
- Implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, including the granting of citizenship and equal rights and the removal of travel bans for Rohingyas.
Working towards safe and viable return for refugees from other ethnic groups
On a recent visit to refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, Tee George of the Australian Karen Organisation heard that the majority of refugees in the camps he visited in Thailand ultimately want to return to Myanmar when it is safe and viable to do so. The main concerns about return now are:
- The continuing war in Kachin and Shan states and fragile nature of ceasefire elsewhere.
- Militarisation of areas where ceasefire has been signed.
- Existence of landmines across large tracts of land.
- Continuing human rights abuses, including forced labour, physical and sexual abuse.
- Confiscation of land and lack of livelihood opportunities.
- Lack of essential services such as health and education.
The Karen Refugee Committee has produced a 10-point plan for safe and viable return, based on addressing these concerns, ensuring that repatriation is truly voluntary, that returning refugees are able to build a viable future in Myanmar and that international support for refugees and IDPs in camps is maintained while peace is built.
Addressing concerns of refugees in camps and urban areas
The reduction in international humanitarian support for refugees in the camps along the Thai-Myanmar border is creating a growing sense of fear and despair among the refugees. They fear the international community is abandoning them and trying to force them to return home before the conditions which forced them to flee are addressed. In the face of significant cuts to aid budgets, the Border Consortium has already stopped support of 8200 internally displaced people in five camps just inside Myanmar and has reduced rations to camps in Thailand.
Urban refugees in Malaysia, even with UNHCR registration, remain with no legal support and with no form of support, forced to work illegally in order to survive. Then worry constantly about their personal safety, the risk of being detained indefinitely and their lack of access to affordable health care. Refugees have no access to the Malaysian education system and the community-run schools they have developed struggle to keep going or meet basic needs of the students.
What Australia can do
- Shift the focus of Australian policy in South East Asia from a “regional deterrence framework” to a strategy focused on supporting the development of durable solutions for refugees and responding to the root causes of displacement, focusing particularly on Myanmar.
- Draw other nations together to apply joint diplomatic pressure to Myanmar to put an end to the violence in Rakhine state, seek the intervention of UN peacekeeping forces and push for the implementation of recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission.
- Work towards supporting the development of safe and viable return for refugees of all ethnicities from Myanmar who want to return, promoting the benefits to Myanmar economically and socially of refugees choosing to return to participate in the rebuilding of the country.
- Increase humanitarian aid to Bangladesh to support the 800,000 Rohingya refugees now in the country and to the support of IDPs and refugees in the Thai-Myanmar border camps who have suffered from substantial cuts to international support.
- Work with other resettlement nations (particularly New Zealand, Canada and USA) on a collective resettlement strategy to support Bangladesh with the resettlement of refugees most in need and to engage Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in a dialogue about improving conditions for refugees currently living in the those countries.
UNHCR (2017), Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Annex Table I, 60-63
UNHCR (2017), UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2018, 23rd Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (Restricted distribution), 154
Asylum Access Thailand presentation to Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network’s South East Asia Working Group, Bangkok, May 2017
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (2017), Malaysia fact sheet: March 2017, quoting UNHCR Malaysia statistics for 31 January 2017