This chapter examines suggestions on assistance to people of Myanmar that the Australian Government can provide in response to the crisis, in particular through visas, asylum, and international development support.
The Department of Home Affairs advised that as at 31 March 2021, there were 3,384 temporary visa holders that are Myanmar nationals in Australia. Inquiry participants called on the Australian Government to grant and extend visas to Myanmar nationals in Australia.
Ms Aung of the Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy is a Myanmar national on a temporary student visa in Australia. She stated that Myanmar nationals in Australia did not consider it safe to return to Myanmar, and that in April had visas that were expiring soon:
[In Myanmar], the violence is escalating and the government has been arresting those who have been active and will go about condemning the coup. It goes the same to those of us now in Australia. We’ve been really active. We organised protests, so we have that great danger of being arrested upon our return to the country. We have some students whose visas are expiring soon, so we believe that the Australian government should consider extending their visas or providing support for them.
The Department of Home Affairs stated that advice was provided to Myanmar nationals currently in Australia:
On 5 May, Minister Hawke put out a statement announcing that Myanmarese who hold temporary visas in Australia may apply to extend their stay until it’s safe to return home. The department subsequently put some advice out for Myanmarese nationals on 6 May. We’ve also written to Myanmarese visa holders in Australia setting out that we’ll support them in their engagement with the department.
The Department of Home Affairs clarified that that under Australia’s migration scheme, ‘the term “extend” is a process by which someone applies for a new visa and is granted a new visa, not simply an extension.’ The Department of Home Affairs also advised that it has a ‘range of layers and protections in place so that any Myanmarese citizen in Australia should be able to stay lawfully until it becomes clearer what the trajectory is of the conflict’:
If you meet one of those criteria, you will get a visa and you will not be looking at being removed. On top of that, we have another layer of protection for these people called our non-refoulement obligations. Regardless of whether people, if you like, seek protection, because of the situation in Myanmar, under the conventions that we are a signatory to, including the human rights convention, the civil and political protection et cetera, before we removed anyone, we would look at seeing if it was safe to do so. And, if we had non-refoulement obligations, they could then stay on a bridging visa.
The Department of Home Affairs was asked a question on notice regarding the Australian Government’s intent to provide a pathway for citizens of Myanmar to remain in Australia until the situation is resolved. At the time of writing, a response has not been provided.
The Department of Home Affairs was also asked a question on notice regarding support provided to international students from Myanmar in Australia. At the time of writing, a response has not been provided.
Mr Nicholas Coppel suggested the Australian Government should consider ‘establishing a pathway to permanent residence, as the turmoil in Myanmar has no end in sight.’
For those seeking to flee Myanmar, Ms Manny Maung, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, stressed that Australia should ‘help fast track visas’ to keep pace with the growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar:
They’re trying to apply for visas, humanitarian visas and assistance, and, quite simply, it’s too slow. So, although people are trying to legitimately do this in a legal way, they’re going to be forced at some point to leave. I have family members who have been forced to leave. They are now on the border, and they’re running between the Tatmadaw and the border skirmishes, where they’re now being attacked by air strikes—no longer fearing night-time raids and being detained arbitrarily but actually fearing for their lives, because they can’t get into Thailand either. We’ve got a lot of people in Myanmar who are trying to apply for visas at various embassies, and they are trying to go through third countries on humanitarian grounds. But, again, Australia has been a country that has been listed as being far too slow to help.
The Australia Myanmar Institute raised the concept of ‘a special humanitarian visa program opened so that people who have fled the suffering and the civil war in have Myanmar have a haven in Australia should they choose to use it.’
The International Federation of Journalists - Asia Pacific suggested that ‘there’s a real need to provide Burmese journalists with visas to allow them to escape the military regime, to give them safe haven—we would prefer it to be in Australia—and to provide the sort of relief and funding assistance that is appropriate to assist them.’
The Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy suggested Australia should provide ‘financial and technical assistance to India and Thailand to assist in their readiness to receive and safely accommodate the current and expected flows of Myanmar refugees across their borders.’
Human Rights Watch was wary about the prospect of Thailand as an avenue for assistance:
Clearly ASEAN is very divided. Unfortunately, Thailand has been on the wrong side of that divide. We should also admit that Prayut is also a general who came to power through a coup. We can’t really rely on Thailand. The reality is that at the moment there is a window of opportunity to ensure at least that the actions that the Thai government take don’t do more harm than good. I think absolutely we want to be encouraging the Thai government to provide safe haven to those who are fleeing across the border to Thailand, not to push them back into Myanmar, and certainly to be brokering some of these conversations that do need to take place with ASEAN.
International development assistance
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) stated in April that development assistance would be redirected to supporting those most in need, and ‘channelled through non-government organisations and multilateral partners, not through government and government-related entities.’ Mr Ridwaan Jadwat, First Assistant Secretary, DFAT, stated:
We were very careful before the coup, and we have been even more careful since the coup. We are no longer dealing with a civilian government; we’re dealing with the Tatmadaw, so we need to make sure that the development program is very clear about not getting into the hands of people associated with the Tatmadaw.
In May, DFAT elaborated:
We’re now working a lot more through trusted non-government partners, such as the World Food Program, Save the Children, [United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees] and the UN Population Fund, to deliver our assistance in new forms.
DFAT was asked in April about challenges for the delivery of international development assistance. At the time of writing, a response has not been provided. DFAT outlined that delivering on-the-ground support was challenging, stating that ‘multilateral banks and aid organisations are finding it much more difficult to deliver assistance. Even getting approvals to visit some of the more needy areas can be more challenging now.’
Dr Shwe suggested that the Government could deliver aid into Myanmar by initiating ‘cross-border assistance programs to support civil society and media groups in Myanmar.’ The Australian Karen Organisation suggested Australia ‘provide urgent humanitarian aid and assistance to the internally displaced people who have been forcibly displaced by the Myanmar military offences in Karen, Kachin, Rakhine and other states in Myanmar.’
The ANU Myanmar Research Group advocated that aid to Myanmar should not be suspended, and that groups that ‘support pillars of democracy’ within Myanmar need assistance:
Australia should continue development assistance which does not go to the junta, directing it to civil society, democracy coalitions, human rights and violence monitors, women’s group, and local media groups including ethnic media groups. Support could also target ethnic organisations’ health and education systems and the CRPH local governance committees, now set up in more than half of the country.
There is a wide range of areas where support is required, both in Myanmar and within Australia. The Committee heard that there was substantial anxiety within the Myanmar diaspora in Australia about the lack of clarity around visa conditions.
The Committee understands that the Department of Home Affairs wrote to Myanmar nationals in Australia, and that this information could have provided the reassurance sought by diaspora and community groups.
Based on advice from the Department of Home Affairs, the Committee understands that the Australian Government will not ask Myanmar nationals to return to Myanmar while it is still an unsafe environment. The Committee is cognisant of the challenges and further uncertainty that may arise should the situation fail to improve.
The crisis since February has largely prevented the functioning of society within Myanmar, and has resulted in insecurity and displacement for many people. The Committee acknowledges DFAT’s advice that the Australian Government sought to promptly reassess its international development program to respond to existing and newly vulnerable populations, as well as to the challenges of delivering funding. The Committee also acknowledges DFAT’s advice that the Australian Government has reviewed its international development assistance to ensure that it is not providing funds to the military regime, or its associated entities.
The Committee recommends the Australian Government ensures our development assistance program to Myanmar supports basic humanitarian needs and civil society and is directed through non-government organisations and multilateral partners, and not through government entities. This should include the development of a medium to longer term plan for ongoing humanitarian assistance.
The Committee recommends the Australian Government explores pathways to permanent residency for Myanmar nationals in Australia given the uncertain situation they face in Myanmar.