14 June 2018
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Dr Cameron Hill
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section
As well as representing a human rights and humanitarian
crisis in its own right, the ongoing Rohingya migrant crisis in Myanmar and
Bangladesh demonstrates the linkages between unresolved internal conflicts,
mass displacement and wider instability in Australia’s region. In its latest
worldwide threat assessment, published in February 2018, the United States
Director of National Intelligence concluded
that the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from
Myanmar to Bangladesh ‘will threaten Burma’s [Myanmar] fledgling democracy,
increase the risk of violent extremism and provide openings for Beijing to
expand its influence’.
The current crisis followed a series of attacks on 25 August
2017 on 30 police facilities in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships
in northwest Rakhine State by a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya
Salvation Army (ARSA). These attacks reportedly killed 12
members of the Myanmar security forces. ARSA, which is known locally as Harakah
al-Yaqin (‘Faith Movement’), is described
as a ‘small, underequipped group that has struggled to mount significant
military operations’. The group also claimed
responsibility for ambush attacks in January 2018 in Rakhine which left three
Myanmar security personnel wounded.
Subsequently, in the wake of the Myanmar military’s (or
‘Tatmadaw’) brutal clearance operations, there have been unconfirmed estimates
of thousands of civilian deaths and, as at 25 May 2018, almost
700,000 Rohingya have fled southern Bangladesh, placing additional strains
on services, natural resources and local populations in one of the region’s
poorest countries. Senior officials from the United Nations (UN) have accused
Myanmar of crimes
against humanity, ethnic
cleansing and potential
The International Crisis Group (ICG) argues
that if the crisis continues to be mishandled by the Myanmar Government, the
potential risk for transnational Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of
the plight of the Rohingya will heighten:
The country has justified what
it calls clearance operations by arguing the nation faces a terrorist threat.
This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The plight of the Rohingya has
captured the attention of the Muslim world, becoming a cause célèbre like
perhaps no other since Kosovo.
Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and
other jihadist groups, which have long issued statements of solidarity with the
Rohingya for propaganda purposes, are now calling directly for attacks on
Myanmar and its leaders. Most recently, on 27 October 2017, the media arm of
al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent released a video message from the group’s
leader, Abu Syed al-Ansari, repeating calls for a jihad against Myanmar in
support of the Rohingya. Myanmar is not prepared to prevent or deal with such
an attack, which could be directed or merely inspired by these jihadist groups.
ARSA has repeatedly denied
links to foreign Islamist groups and more recent reporting
from the ICG concludes that to date there has been no evidence of any connections
to these groups. In a report published in May 2018 the international human
rights group Amnesty International alleged that ARSA ‘is responsible for at least one, and
potentially a second, massacre of up to 99 Hindu women, men, and children as
well as additional unlawful killings and abductions of Hindu villagers in
As well as the ongoing threat of disease and malnutrition,
there have been reports within the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh of killings,
trafficking and gender-based
violence. As the 2018 monsoon season commences, an estimated
200,000 Rohingya refugees living in these camps have been assessed by the UN as
being in direct danger from predicted landslides, floods and disease outbreaks.
While it has accommodated and provided temporary protection
to a very large number of Rohingya, the Bangladeshi Government has also
repeatedly stated that it intends
to relocate some 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island off
the country’s southern coast. One analyst has described
Bhasan Char in the following terms—‘it isn’t just any normal island. It emerged
from the waters in 2006 as a result of silt deposits. And is, unsurprisingly,
highly vulnerable to the region’s extreme and violent weather patterns’.
Access to formal education remains
out of reach for a generation of 530,000 school-age refugees, including the
children of Rohingya who fled earlier waves of violence, because Bangladesh
does not want the Rohingya to stay long-term.
The UNHCR has called
on both governments to ensure that any repatriation of Rohingya back to Myanmar
is ‘safe, voluntary and sustainable’. While Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a new
repatriation agreement in November 2017, the ICG warns
that the processes surrounding the implementation of this agreement remain
fraught with risk for the displaced Rohingya. As a result, ‘the refugees’
return to their homes and lands thus is not only increasingly unlikely, but
also becoming impossible in practice’.
In June 2018 the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Refugee
Agency (UNHCR) signed
a tripartite memorandum of understanding with the Myanmar Government to
facilitate the voluntary, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to
Rakhine State. While the agreement has not been made public, the Myanmar
Government has said
it would allow UN agencies access to parts of northern Rakhine state for the
first time since August 2017. Despite the agreement, the UN maintains
that the situation in Rakhine is still not conducive to safe returns and some analysts
have expressed continued scepticism
regarding the prospects for large-scale repatriation in the absence of wider
changes in the political climate and security conditions in Rakhine State.
As the risks associated with the current monsoon season
escalate, there have been reports of vessels carrying Rohingya arriving in Malaysia
raising fears of a re-run of the 2015 crisis when an estimated 25,000 Rohingya
took to people-smuggling boats from the Bay of Bengal and fled to neighbouring
Myanmar Government responses
While there has been widespread global and regional concern,
within Myanmar there is no significant domestic constituency expressing concern
for the plight of the Rohingya. They are regarded by much of the majority
ethnic Bamar population and by the Myanmar Government as ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi
migrants. ARSA is viewed
by the Myanmar authorities as a ‘terrorist’ organisation which has targeted
civilians in Rakhine and has escaped the scrutiny of international human rights
organisations. As a result,
‘much of Myanmar’s population view international condemnations as not only
unfair but also adversarial to the national interest—generating little
institutional incentive for military operations centred around civilian
Following earlier waves of violence in 2012, 2013 and 2016,
127,000 Rohingya in northern Rakhine State remain segregated in internal
displacement camps and do not enjoy equal access to basic health and education
services, markets and employment opportunities.
Among the local ethnic Rakhine-Buddhist population—who have
themselves suffered under decades of military rule and have their own armed
insurgent groups—the predominant view
of the Rohingya is that they are a group which seeks to displace the Rakhine
through population growth, inter-marriage and, following ARSA attacks in October
2016 and August 2017, terrorism and violence. Historical, geographic and
ethno-religious identity claims are deeply contested
on both sides. Myanmar’s rapidly expanding social media access has played a
role in hardening
The military—which remains Myanmar’s most important
political institution—is a key protagonist in these narratives and continues to
the conflict as one that is aimed at defending the country’s ‘stability’, ‘unity’
and the preservation of ‘national races’, a term referring to a list of
officially recognised ‘indigenous’ ethnic groups that does not include the Rohingya.
In the face of growing international criticism, including
accusations of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide, in January
2018 the Myanmar military acknowledged
that its security forces and Buddhist villagers killed ten Rohingya Muslims
whose bodies were found in a mass grave in Inn Din village in western Rakhine
State. In April, seven soldiers were sentenced
to ten years for their involvement in this massacre. Despite this admission, two
local Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been charged with
violating Myanmar’s official secrets laws for their investigative reporting
on this massacre. The two journalists are awaiting trial, but have been denied
bail, and face the prospect of 14 years in prison if found guilty.
Humanitarian and international media access to Rakhine State
restricted and international donors and aid agencies have repeatedly called
for improved access. The Myanmar Government has facilitated
some visits to affected parts of Rakhine State by foreign media, UN staff and
foreign diplomats, under close supervision.
In late April 2018 the Myanmar Government did allow
permanent representatives of the 15-member UN Security Council to visit the country
to assess the situation, which included a visit to northern Rakhine State. Following
the visit, the Security Council urged ‘the
Government of Myanmar to grant the United Nations agencies and their partners
immediate, safe and unhindered access to Rakhine State, as well as to other
domestic and international non‑governmental
organizations providing humanitarian assistance’. The Council also called for
‘transparent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses and
violations’ and urged the Government of Myanmar to ‘fulfil, based on respect
for the rule of law, its stated commitment to holding accountable perpetrators
of violence, including sexual violence and abuse and violence against
children’. The United States accused
unnamed fellow members of the Council of watering down previous drafts of this
statement on the basis of ‘cynical and self-interested reasons’. This is seen
by most commentators as a reference to China, which continues to seek close relations
with Myanmar and is building
a US$7.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu, a port town in Rakhine State on the
Prior to the current violence, there had been some high-profile
attempts to seek an internal political solution. In September 2016, following a
request from Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, the Kofi Annan
Foundation and the Office of the State Counsellor established an Advisory
Commission on Rakhine State. The Commission was headed by former UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan and its August 2017 final report, released just prior to the ARSA
a range of measures ‘to surmount the political, socio-economic and humanitarian
challenges that currently face Rakhine State’, including the longstanding
inter-communal tensions between the Rakhine Buddhist population and addressing
the citizenship status of the Rohingya. While repeatedly denying claims of
systematic human rights abuses, Suu Kyi has
committed to the full implementation of the report’s recommendations.
In December 2017, Myanmar appointed another advisory body to
support the Implementation Commission for Rakhine State, headed by a former
Thai deputy prime minister, Surakiart Sathirathai. The credibility of this new
body was questioned in early 2018 following the resignation of one of its high-profile
appointees, former US politician Bill Richardson, who publicly
labelled it a ‘whitewash’ and criticised the approach taken by Suu Kyi. An
interim report by the advisory body was delivered
to the Myanmar Government in February 2018.
In the wake of ongoing efforts
by victims and human rights activists and lawyers to refer Myanmar to the
International Criminal Court (ICC), in May 2018 Naypyidaw announced
the establishment of a new independent commission of inquiry into ‘the
violation of human rights and related issues following the terrorist attacks by
ARSA’. According to the announcement, the commission will be composed of three
members, including an international representative, and will be assisted by
domestic and international legal and technical experts. Human Rights Watch has described
this latest commission as ‘not merely inadequate, but an attempt to delay and
deflect real justice’ and has urged the UN Security Council to refer the
situation in Myanmar to the ICC.
and bilateral diplomacy
The Australian Government has consistently
echoed international calls for ‘restraint by the Myanmar authorities, for
the protection of civilians, and for unfettered access to be granted to
humanitarian workers’. The Australian Government welcomed—and
has repeatedly called for—the full implementation of the recommendations of the
August 2017 final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine
that ‘implementation will be a long-term process and Australia stands ready to
assist Myanmar in its efforts’.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, stated
on 23 October 2017 that ‘the Australian Government condemns the ongoing
violence in Rakhine State. We continue to call for the protection of civilians
and the unfettered access for humanitarian workers’.
Prior to the current crisis, in March 2017 the Australian
an EU-led resolution in the UN Human Rights Council to establish an
international ‘fact-finding mission’ to investigate allegations of systematic
human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State. A spokesperson for the
Australian Government stated at the time that this decision ‘reﬂects our
deep and consistent concern about the allegations and our objective for a
thorough, credible and impartial investigation’. To date, this fact-finding
mission has been blocked
by the Myanmar Government from accessing Rakhine State, but it has visited
displaced Rohingya communities in Bangladesh
In October 2017, in response to reports that Australia had
sought to ‘soften’ a Human Rights Council resolution on Myanmar, the Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) stated
that ‘we consider it important we maintain appropriate lines of communication
with Myanmar on a very challenging set of security, human rights and
humanitarian issues and concerns in Rakhine state’. The Foreign Minister has
stated that she has refrained from publicly condemning Myanmar’s government
‘because I can see that Aung San Suu Kyi can’t be blamed for what’s happening.
She has to be part of the solution; otherwise we will be going back decades in
terms of Myanmar’s growth and prosperity’.
Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Bishop held a
bilateral meeting with State Counsellor Suu Kyi during her March 2018 visit for
the ASEAN-Australia Summit. According to reporting
by ABC News:
Mr Turnbull was pressed about the controversy at a press
conference at the conclusion of the summit. "Aung San Suu Kyi addressed
the matter comprehensively at some considerable length herself," Mr
Turnbull said. "She seeks support from ASEAN and other nations to provide
help ... from a humanitarian and capacity-building point of view. So our goal is
to support a peaceful and speedy resolution of the humanitarian problems, the
humanitarian disaster truthfully that has resulted from the conflict."
The Prime Minister also met with Ms Suu Kyi in Canberra on
Monday morning and discussed the crisis. Myanmar has been in negotiations with
Bangladesh over the fate of displaced Rohingyas. Mr Turnbull encouraged Ms Suu
Kyi to reach a resolution so that the refugees could return to their homes. He
also made it clear Australia would be willing to keep aid money flowing to both
Myanmar and Bangladesh to help resolve the emergency.
Reflecting the divergence of views within ASEAN and the
organisation’s discomfort with public statements on human rights issues, the
Rohingya crisis was not mentioned in the Summit’s joint
In response to growing allegations of ethnic cleansing and
genocide, at the Human Rights Council session in March 2018 the Australian
Australia reiterates its deep concern about events in Rakhine
state, including reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations
and abuses by Myanmar security forces and local vigilantes. We also note with
concern ongoing clashes between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups in
north-eastern Myanmar and barriers to humanitarian access.
Australia reiterates its call for a thorough, credible and
independent investigation, including through the fact-finding mission. We
encourage Myanmar to grant the fact-finding mission access to affected areas.
Perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses must be held to account.
In terms of the Australian Government’s official position
on whether the actions of the Myanmar military constitute ‘ethnic cleansing’ or
‘crimes against humanity’, DFAT has stated
that the Australian Government is awaiting the findings of the UN fact-finding
mission, which is due to report to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.
On 5 April, Australia’s Ambassador to Myanmar met with the
commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
According to a post
on General Min Aung Hlaing’s official Facebook page, the two discussed defence
cooperation, as well as the situation in Rakhine State:
Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Senior General Min
Aung Hlaing received Ambassador of Australia to Myanmar H.E. Mr. Nicholas
Coppel at the Parlour of Bayintnaung Villa, here, this morning. Also present at
the call together with the Senior General were Lt-Gen Soe Htut of the Office of
the Commander- in-Chief (Army) and senior military officers. The Australian
Ambassador to Myanmar was accompanied by Military Attaché Col. Paul Bruce and
At the meeting, they frankly discussed cooperation between
the two armed forces of Myanmar and Australia and cooperation in defence
affairs, progress in building the Standard Army of Myanmar, concerted efforts
of the government and the Tatmadaw in restoring eternal peace and participation
of Australia in the peace processes, progress of undertakings in
Buthidaung-Maungtaw region of Rakhine State, and a helping hand given by
Australia to development tasks of Myanmar.
The Australian Government has indicated
that Australian embassy staff are attending court hearings for the two Reuters
journalists, that it has registered its concerns regarding their arrest and
that it is ‘pursuing other avenues to draw attention to their plight’. Australia
other countries in calling for the release of the journalists and for
unhindered media access to Rakhine State.
The Australian embassy in Yangon has participated in
Myanmar-supervised visits to Rakhine State. According to a statement
from the US embassy in Yangon (linked
on the Australian embassy website), the most recent visit involving Australian
officials took place in early February 2018.
On the basis of this visit, DFAT stated
in Senate Estimates hearings in March 2018 that it assessed that ‘the
conditions [in Myanmar] don’t currently exist to support the safe, dignified
and secure return of Rohingya’. The Foreign Minister echoed
this assessment in April—‘as much as I would like to encourage the Rohingyas to
return home, they must have a safe and secure place to which they can return
and I don't believe Myanmar has yet been able to provide credible evidence that
that would be available to them’.
DFAT has noted
that its ability to monitor the situation facing Rohingya communities in
Rakhine State remains limited by ongoing access restrictions.
The Australian Government’s principal response to the crisis
has been to pledge significant humanitarian support for affected populations in
Myanmar and Bangladesh. As at 1 June 2018, the Government had committed $51.5
million in assistance to help address the humanitarian needs of Rohingya and
affected communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Most of this aid—around
$44 million—has been directed to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Cox’s
Bazar in eastern Bangladesh (Table 1).
Table 1: Australian Government
assistance to the Rohingya crisis since August 2017
|| Summary of assistance
|9 Sept 2017
||‘... contribute to
life-saving food being provided to up to 300,000 people. Australian support
in Bangladesh will be provided through the World Food Programme and the
International Organisation for Migration. In Myanmar, Australia will work
with the Red Cross movement to reach those affected by the conflict’.
|19 Sept 2017
‘... providing food, shelter,
clean water and essential health services for displaced people in Bangladesh.
This assistance will be
provided through the World Food Programme, the International Organisation for
Migration and other trusted humanitarian partners’.
|23 Oct 2017
‘... providing food, clean
water, shelter and essential health services. Our assistance will also help
treat children for malnutrition, create safe and secure areas for vulnerable
women and provide maternal health services.
The new contribution will
include support for the World Food Program, Save The Children, Oxfam and
Care. It will also support an upcoming joint funding appeal with the
Australia Red Cross and Australia for UNHCR’.
|18 Jan 2018
||‘... supply life-saving
medicine, help quarantine the sick, train local medical staff, and boost
community awareness activities aimed at reducing [diphtheria] infection
|28 April 2018
‘... provide food to more
than 700,000 people in Cox’s Bazar, and high-nutrient porridge to more than
100,000 children under the age of five and breastfeeding or pregnant women.
It will also support child
protection services and counselling and medical services for women and girls
who have survived sexual and gender-based violence’.
| 4 May 2018
||‘... provide access to basic
health care for 50,000 people, help 18,000 children to attend school, improve
shelter for 17,600 people in advance of the monsoon and cyclone season, and
help to reunite separated and unaccompanied children with their families’.
Sources: Minister for Foreign
Affairs, Australian Government website; Prime
Minister, Australian Government website.
This assistance is in addition to $45 million in
humanitarian aid that the Australian Government has previously provided in the
wake of outbreaks of violence in Rakhine State in 2012, 2013 and 2016.
Australia’s key humanitarian partners
include the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration,
BRAC (a Bangladesh non-government organisation), the United Nations Population
Fund (UNFPA), UNHCR and international and Australian non-government
organisations. In terms of the regional humanitarian response, the Foreign
in late 2017 that ‘we’re working closely with Indonesia, who has taken a pretty
strong leadership role on the humanitarian front and actually, some of our
specialists are embedded with the Indonesian humanitarian team in
According to data from UN Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) , as at 25 May 2018 Australia
was the third-largest donor to the UN’s current consolidated humanitarian
appeal for the displaced communities in Cox’s Bazar, after the US and the UK
(see Table 2).
Table 2: UN consolidated appeal:
Rohingya refugee crisis
FTS: Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugee Crisis 2017
According to the UN’s Financial Tracking System, which
reflects publicly reported contributions, as at 25 May 2018 the current Rohingya
Response Plan, launched in March 2018, had received just 18 per
cent of the US$951 million appeal. The Plan runs to December 2018.
Australia’s bilateral aid to Myanmar has been reduced
by more than a third over the last several years as part of broader
international development assistance cuts, falling from $73 million in 2014–15
to an estimated
$42 million in 2018–19. Bilateral aid to Bangladesh has been reduced by a similar amount, falling from $72 million in
2014–15 to an estimated
$42 million in 2018–19. In response to Senate Estimates Questions on Notice,
DFAT has previously stated
that none of the additional humanitarian assistance for
Myanmar and Bangladesh has been redirected from existing aid programs.
DFAT has also stated
that the Australian Government ‘will continue to monitor the situation,
particularly as access constraints and humanitarian needs evolve, and will make
a judgement about whether and when it would be appropriate to provide
additional funds’. In December 2017, following a review of Australia’s
humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, DFAT agreed
to a recommendation to develop a comprehensive multi-year strategy to guide
this assistance, ‘including considering options for responding to displacement
of people from Myanmar to Bangladesh’.
III. Proposals for a strengthened response
suspend defence cooperation
In September 2017 Amnesty International called upon the Australian Government to
suspend cooperation with the Myanmar military in response to allegations of
gross human rights abuses in Rakhine State:
‘While a campaign of ethnic cleansing is being committed
against the Rohingya people, the Australian Government must suspend all forms
of support to Myanmar’s military’, Amnesty International Australia’s Campaigns
Manager Michael Hayworth said.
‘Amnesty International is calling on governments with
military relationships with the Myanmar Army to use these relationships to
press the army to stop the violations; and those providing training to the
military to immediately suspend co-operation. This includes Australia’.
The United States has applied
sanctions on a senior member of the Myanmar military, General Maung Maung Soe,
and the UK has suspended all
of its defence cooperation with Myanmar. In April 2018, European Union foreign
agreed to prohibit the provision of military training to and cooperation
with the Myanmar military and ‘adopted a legal framework for targeted
restrictive measures against certain persons from the Myanmar Armed Forces and
the border guard police’.
In April 2018, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence, Richard
Australia’s defence cooperation with Myanmar’s military as ‘untenable’ in light
of the alleged atrocities perpetrated by the Tatmadaw on the Rohingya.
The Turnbull Government has rejected repeated calls for Australia to
suspend all bilateral defence cooperation, arguing that Australia’s cooperation
with the Myanmar military aims to ‘promote professionalism and adherence to
international laws’ and that it is ‘important we maintain appropriate lines of
communication with the Myanmar military to do this’.
In Senate Estimates hearings in March 2018, DFAT stated:
The engagement that Australia has with the [Myanmar] military
is relatively small ... In our view, the continuing military engagement is very
important. Engaging with the military, which still has a particular role in the
political situation in Myanmar, is a channel through which we can both engage
with the military and also work with the military in the development of and to
support the further democratisation in Myanmar.
Professor John Blaxland, head of the Australian National
University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and a former Australian
defence attaché to Thailand and Myanmar, has supported this position, arguing that suspending defence cooperation
would be ‘like cutting off your nose to spite your face ... it’s actually
unhelpful because this is the only venue for engagement with the Burmese
military on issues relating to human rights’.
The Defence Department has stated that it will ‘review current and
planned defence activities on a case-by-case basis’. DFAT stated
in Senate Estimates hearings in May 2018 that in regard to bilateral defence
cooperation and targeted sanctions, all options ‘continue to be under
The Australian Government maintains
an arms embargo on Myanmar ‘due to concerns about ongoing armed conflict,
weapons proliferation and human rights’.
According to a DFAT country protection assessment published
in January 2017, seven months prior to the start of the current crisis,
‘official and societal discrimination against Rohingya in Rakhine State, on the
basis of their ethnicity, is endemic. They lack citizenship, face severe
restrictions on their freedom of movement and are the subject of systemic
extortion and harassment’.
Based on these kinds of assessments, the Refugee Council of
Australia has called
on the Australian Government to consider a special resettlement program for displaced
Rohingya populations, similar to that in place for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. A
former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, Trevor Wilson, has also argued
that the resettlement of refugees should be part of Australia’s wider attempts
to help resolve the current crisis, noting that on the whole ‘Rohingya have
proved to be excellent citizens’. In addition, expert and advocacy
organisations such as the Kaldor
Centre for International Refugee Law and the Asia
Pacific Refugee Rights Network have offered recommendations on how
Australia could help provide safer refugee pathways in the region for groups
such as the Rohingya.
According to evidence
provided in June 2015 by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to
Senate Budget Estimates hearings, between 2008 and May 2015, 412 people
identifying themselves as ‘Rohingya’ were granted humanitarian visas. However, according
to the Refugee Council of Australia, only 37 Rohingya were resettled in
Australia between 2013 and early 2017.
Cohorts of Rohingya asylum seekers are currently being held
in Australia’s offshore detention and processing facilities in Papua New Guinea
and Nauru. In September 2017 there were reports
that the Australian Government had offered to pay some Rohingya to return to
Myanmar. An unspecified number of Rohingya have been resettled
in the US as part of a 2016 bilateral refugee resettlement agreement. It was reported
in 2016 that a Rohingya man, Mohammed Roshid, had been resettled in Phnom Penh
as part of a controversial 2014 bilateral agreement with Cambodia. In May 2018,
a Rohingya man on Manus Island died after reportedly
deliberately jumping from the window of a moving bus. Amnesty International has
for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding this death and
the UNHCR has called
upon the Australian Government to provide full support to refugees and
asylum-seekers held in offshore detention in order to ‘avert further harm and
As noted, given the number of displaced people in camps in
Bangladesh, the worsening conditions in the camps with the looming monsoon
season and further delays implementing the Myanmar/Bangladesh resettlement
agreement, there remains the potential for another regional
migrant crisis similar to that of 2015. During this crisis, the Abbott
to resettle any of the stranded Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh,
despite calls by Indonesia that Australia should do more to assist the regional
The Gillard Labor Government was also reluctant
to resettle large numbers of Rohingya, with Foreign Minister Carr arguing in early
2013 that while Australia would continue to provide humanitarian aid to
Rohingya populations, a long-term solution lay primarily with the Myanmar
Experts and advocates such as Elaine Pearson from Human
Rights Watch and Professor John Blaxland have argued
that given the alleged gross human rights violations and the threat to regional
security posed by the ongoing crisis, Australia should be spearheading a much
wider regional diplomatic and humanitarian effort, including the deployment of
Australian Defence Force assets:
Australia has modestly but
effectively led regional coalitions to resolve emergent crises in the past. For
instance, in 1993, then foreign minister Gareth Evans was a driving force in
generating the momentum for a UN-mandated international mission to bring about
a peaceful and democratic Cambodia.
Similarly, in 1999, when
violence broke out after the East Timor referendum results showed clear support
for independence, Australia took a principled stand and led a coalition to
restore peace and order, drawing in support of key ASEAN partners such as
Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.
As Bangladesh struggles to
cope with the newly-arrived Rohingya refugees, and Myanmar unhelpfully blocks
international humanitarian agencies from resuming their work in Rakhine State,
Australia should also lead in providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance.
Today, the Australian
government has a more robust capability to provide humanitarian assistance and
disaster relief than ever before.
With the navy's new
amphibious ships, and experience in effective multi-agency cooperation
displayed in responding to a string of disasters in recent years, Australia is
best placed to offer to form the foundation of a multinational and multiagency
coalition to respond to this massive humanitarian crisis.
The time to act is now.
Australia has long been a middle power acting like a small power but it can
accomplish a great deal when it rises to the occasion. Australia should engage
with its neighbours to find a solution to this crisis that, if left untended,
could spiral further into chaos.
Australia needs first to call
for Myanmar to allow humanitarian agencies and independent monitors into
It should be a leader in the
effort to support the Bangladeshi authorities in responding to the overwhelming
needs within Bangladesh.
These are the starting points
for a wider coalition in which Australia should play a leading role.
More recently, in the face of the monsoon threat and in the
wake of recent Rohingya boat arrivals in Malaysia and Indonesia, Dr John Coyne
from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has argued:
Australia needs to enhance its bilateral and multilateral
strategies to address the persecution of the Rohingyas, starting with upgrading
our relationship with Bangladesh. And it must be relentless in its efforts to
bring Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia together to work with
Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue.
Crisis Group has published several briefings papers on the current
conflict in Rakhine and the human rights and humanitarian situation facing the
Rohingya, as has Human Rights Watch
Regular updates on the humanitarian situation and the
international community’s response are published on Relief Web, a
specialised digital reporting service of the UN’s Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Affairs.
Updates on the Australian
Government’s response to the crisis are published on the DFAT website.
Council for International Development provides regular updates on the
work of Australian non-government humanitarian and development organisations.
Commission, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid
Operations, Emergency Response
Coordination Centre website
For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.
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