Rohingya refugee children are seen at a temporary shelter in Bayeun village, Ache province, Indonesia, on 24 May. Photo by AFP images.

Rohingya refugee children are seen at a temporary shelter in Bayeun village, Ache province, Indonesia, on 24 May. Photo by AFP images.

Rohingya refugee crisis

25 May 2015

Efforts to find a regional solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis will fail unless members of the international community such as Australia lend their full support, writes TREVOR WILSON

Seeking a regional solution for the problem of unauthorised arrivals by Rohingya in South-East Asia is a sensible approach for what has become a truly regional problem.

But a "regional solution" is not necessarily an easy goal to achieve; and it is probably not an easy matter for Australia to participate in finding an effective "solution".

The Rohingya are in reality a stateless people: they are not allowed to be citizens (as "Rohingya") in Myanmar, where most of them currently live, or in Bangladesh, where their ancestors came from.

They are the subject of gross discrimination in Myanmar - where they were long segregated from the main population, where they were the object of severe restrictions by successive governments (restrictions which were not applied to other residents of Myanmar), and where they were forced to live in appalling conditions.

The United Nations does not use the word persecution in relation to the Rohingya, and says they are not necessarily the object of genocide or ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, although their human rights are certainly not being respected.

There were even three Rohingya elected to the current Myanmar parliament, but they are not able to identify themselves as "Rohingya".

Australian governments have supported regional solutions for unauthorised people movements in South-East Asia in various ways over the years.

They have contributed to efforts by relevant international agencies (such as the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration) to process and resettle such people via orderly resettlement arrangements.

In recent years, Australian governments have also funded capacity building programs to counter people trafficking in several South-East Asian countries, including Myanmar. But these programs may not have been designed for the current Rohingya situation.

Meanwhile, Australian governments have over many years provided substantial humanitarian assistance to Rohingya living in Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, as well as some living in Bangladesh.

This assistance was delivered through UN agencies and international NGOS working inside Myanmar and Bangladesh. Australia has also for a several years accepted limited numbers of Rohingya as asylum seekers.

There are a few hundred Rohingya in Australia, who are working, studying and living normally in the Australian community. Why couldn't Australia take some more?

However, it may take more than this to find a "solution" for the current Rohingya problem.

For example, the Myanmar government may not want to change its internal policies on Rohingya, at least until there is a domestic consensus, which at the moment does not exist. But the Myanmar government must stop forcing Rohingya to make dangerous and life-threatening boat trips from Myanmar, confronting all regional governments with awkward political decisions.

Myanmar's fellow ASEAN members - Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia - may not want a solution which means they accept more Rohingya than they have already, without firm prospects of their resettlement.

ASEAN itself does not have the mechanisms or the experience to coordinate a program for the Rohingya influx, but ASEAN could possibly play a useful facilitating role.

A regional solution will need relevant international agencies such as the UNHCR or IOM to coordinate responses.

Members of the international community such as Australia must lend their full support to such efforts, which will otherwise fail. Expectations of Australia making a generous and humanitarian contribution are gathering pace quickly.

Relocating these Rohingya to Nauru or Manus Island detention centres, even temporarily, would not necessarily be seen as an appropriate "humanitarian" response.

Trevor Wilson is a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar (2000-2003). He is a visiting fellow at ANU's College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article was first published by The Drum

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