Refugee Council of Australia
Three people at microphones

Rebuilding our damaged reputation: A strategy for Australian leadership on refugee protection

Current crisis in Rakhine state in Myanmar

Over the past two weeks, as I have been putting this presentation together, I have been hearing deeply alarming reports about the rapidly worsening situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar. It appears from reports in the media, from NGOs and from Rohingya community members that hundreds of people have been killed, possibly thousands, and that entire villages have been burned to the ground. Human Rights Watch has been monitoring satellite images which confirm the destruction of many homes.

Last night, I was conducting a community consultation on refugee issues here in Adelaide which was attended by, among others, six Rohingya men. We spoke for a little while about their situation as people who arrived by boat prior to mid-2013, discussing the difficulties of living on a Bridging Visa and not having any access to permanent protection.

However, the discussion quickly turned to the impacts of the violence on their families back in Myanmar. One man spoke about the killings of his sister and niece while another explained that his family home and all houses in his village had been deliberately destroyed by fire, leaving his elderly mother and many relatives homeless.

These family members now have no shelter, living in the bush as he described it, unable to cross the border to Bangladesh. Media reports today say that 140,000 Rohingya have fled across the border so far, despite Bangladesh’s previous attempts to keep the border closed.

There are suggestions that the number of people fleeing Myanmar could increase e to 300,000, joining more than 250,000 Rohingya already living in Bangladesh under terrible conditions.

The situation of Rohingya people is truly appalling. They are stateless, having had their right to citizenship of their country of birth removed more than 35 years ago. Much to their dismay, their situation has got worse since the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung Sung Suu Kyi, took government five years ago.

Their attempts to seek refuge in other countries have often been met with very negative responses, including from Bangladesh, India, Thailand and, unfortunately, Australia. It has often been remarked internationally that the Rohingya are among the most unwanted and mistreated people on the planet.

Last night, I couldn’t offer the Rohingya community members much more than listening to them and letting them know that I and many others are deeply concerned about what is happening. I have written to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, asking for Australia to take up this crisis as a diplomatic priority, applying pressure to the government of Myanmar and inviting other nations in the region to work on a joint diplomatic intervention.

This crisis emphasises that refugee issues are truly issues of life and death – and that giving up in despair and cynicism is not an option. If we do that, we be can sure of achieving nothing.

Australia’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council At the end of next month, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on Australia’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council. As happens with UN roles, the positions on the UN Human Rights Council are allocated on a quota basis to different regional groupings of countries. Australia is competing for one of the two positions allocated for the next three years to countries in the Western European and Other category. Until two months ago, Australia was competing with Spain and France for the two positions.

However, in July, France dropped out, just a week after the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Paris. While Australia is now set to walk into this position, it will still have its human rights record scrutinised by other UN states prior to the vote, and its human rights record will continue to be scrutinised for the three years it remains a Human Rights Council member.

The pledges and voluntary commitments made by Australia for its candidacy for the Human Rights Council are based on five pillars:

  • advance the rights of women and girls
  • promote good governance and stronger democratic institutions everywhere
  • promote and protect freedom of expression
  • advance the human rights of indigenous peoples around the globe
  • promote strong national human rights institutions and capacity-building.

These are outlined in a document presented to the UN General Assembly in July. In this document, the Australian Government expresses its commitment to international human rights, including to the procedures and processes of the UN Human Rights Council, highlights its humanitarian resettlement program and expresses its commitment to combatting racism and xenophobia.

Many Australians may be a little surprised to see the Australian Government claim in this document that it is “a strong advocate for strengthening the capacity of national human rights institutions to promote and protect human rights”. I doubt that Professor Gillian Triggs would agree, given the ministerial attacks on the Australian Human Rights Commission during her tenure as president and recent cuts to the commission’s budget.

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