Like anyone interested in migration, refugees and human rights, the plight of the Rohingya has been constantly on my mind. Since 2013 I have been privileged to work with some of our younger Rohingya refugees who were part of the unflatteringly named ‘legacy caseload’. These are wonderful polite and enterprising young men who we should be very proud to have in our country. However, they are currently in despair watching the tragedy unfold in Myanmar and the danger their families are fleeing.
It isn’t a surprise that the reaction of the government to the recent crisis has been a muted diplomatic one, focusing on money for aid and concerns about Rohingya becoming radicalised moslems, with evidence of concrete ways to assist refugees fleeing the violence. In 2015 when Rohingya fled en masse, dying in their thousands at sea… our Prime Minister responded with his famous ‘Nope Nope Nope” response.
“I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door…Don’t think that getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler is going to do you or your family any good.”
Certainly the refugees should not have fled onto boats. What could they have been thinking? Staying behind to get maimed and killed is a much better option. Better still would be trying to find a way to apply for a visa ‘through the front door’.
The boys I assisted had no option but to come by boat. They arrived terrified and traumatised in 2012 and waited until the end of 2016 before the government allowed them to apply for a visa. They then waited months for an interview and a grant of the famous Safe Haven Enterprise Visa. Between the time they arrived and their grant of a temporary visa the situation in Myanmar worsened.
When reviewing their cases for their immigration interview I found the documentation horrific. I was reluctant to share these documents with the boys fearing the trauma I could cause them. Yet in reality they knew far more than me. They talk to their families when they can, they watch the internet and they have seen and heard reports of atrocities for years.
These documents showed that four years after the violence there remained international concern over human rights violations facing Rohingya and the resulting impact on their ability to work, access basic services, avoid arbitrary arrest, and detention, and deliberate violent attacks. In 2016 DFAT continued to list Myanmar as an area where visitors must exercise a ‘high degree of caution’ due to the overall security situation and possibility of further civil unrest.
The November 2015 updated Report by the United States Memorial Museum for the prevention of Genocide warned that there had been no effort by the Burmese Government to dismantle the structure of persecution against the Rohingya. The report detailed 18 actions currently undertaken against the Rohingya that can be considered warning signs of a future genocide.
DFAT Myanmar Brief of 2016 stated ‘Despite progress, significant human rights challenges remain. Australia continues to stress the importance of resolving the situation in Rakhine State as well as the need to protect the rights of all people living in the country.’
In October 2016 new reports of violence in the Rakhine province reached news outlets. Reports detailed concerning developments in Rakhine and an increase of generalised police violence against Muslim Rohingya in retaliation for alleged killings.
Amnesty International stated in their February 2016 Report that the situation of persecuted Rohingya has deteriorated since 2012. They remain concerned that Rohingya continue to be deprived of citizenship rights, continue to face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, access to health care, the right to education and equal employment. Amnesty detailed ongoing reports of arbitrary arrest and members of the security forces continued to violate human rights with impunity.
These concerns were upheld by the report of the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2016. The special Rapporteur expressed concerns that there ‘has been no attempt by the government to address the serious human rights concerns on the ground in Rakhine State’. She called for an end to discriminatory practices against the Rohingya in Rakhine pointing out that the ongoing curfews and restrictions on movements imposed only on Rohingya are a form of intentional control. The four-year curfew following the 2012 riots imposed a ban on people gathering in groups of more than five, effectively preventing family celebrations, attendance at funerals, or religious activities including going to the Mosque.
It can be no surprise then to governments around the world that the situation would continue to deteriorate. This year tens of thousands of people were added to the already large numbers of internally displaced persons. Almost 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. The question for us as Australians is what can our government do right now to assist the Rohingya when the problem seems to be overwhelming?
Australians are beginning to question and demand real action. So whilst diplomacy is a very important part of the answer there are three very easy things the government can do immediately.
- Give those who have been granted temporary asylum a permanent visa with family reunion rights. At the moment, they are stuck on five year temporary visas which require them to work or study in a regional area. They have no right to family reunion and limited ability to travel. Their families are amongst the thousands who have fled to Bangladesh. For these people, there is no ‘front door’.
- Open the pathway for immediate family reunion for all Rohingya living in Australia on permanent visas, regardless of how they arrived in Australia. (Few people realised that refugees continue to be punished long after they have settled permanently through restrictions on allocation and processing of family visas).
- Grant Rohingya who are on Manus and Nauru a permanent visa to Australia with access to family reunion.
Providing those who are here with the ability to sponsor people to Australia will cost us little and whilst these measures may only assist a few hundred people they relieve some of the burden from Bangladesh and the stress and trauma from those living in Australia. As far as Diplomacy goes actions such as this would demonstrate to the region and the world that Australia can play a concrete role in finding regional solutions. Considering the mayhem and despair we can all see on the news, Australia as a caring nation would see that these solutions are politically viable.
Marianne Dickie is a an academic at ANU College of Law and a migration agent. She has worked with refugees since 1996.