Refugees Are Not Just A 'Policy' Problem


It’s easy to talk policy and "solutions" when you haven’t actually looked the issue straight in the face, especially when that "issue" is a vulnerable person.

I was starkly reminded of this during a recent work-related trip to Asia to meet with Amnesty directors from the region. Some of this time was spent in Bangkok, Thailand.

In comparison with the numbers of refugees crammed into Thailand’s immigration detention centres, the number of people arriving on boats in Australia is very small, putting our heated asylum-seeker debate into perspective.

The escalation in violence in Myanmar towards the Rohingya Muslim minority during this past year has seen large numbers of people fleeing to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in search of refuge.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Burma who have faced severe discrimination for decades, and are denied equal access to citizenship in their own country.

In May, local authorities in Rakhine state reaffirmed a 2005 policy that put a two-child limit on Rohingya families in certain townships, a blatant breach of human rights for the 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar and a move the United Nations has condemned.

In June 2012, violence erupted between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state and led to considerable numbers of deaths and injuries as well as widespread destruction. While both communities were affected, the Rohingya were the primary victims.

According to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees more than 140,000 people, most of whom are Rohingya, have fled their homes since June 2012 and are currently confined to temporary shelters, many without sustained access to other humanitarian necessities.

Tens of thousands of other Rohingya have taken to the sea with the hope of finding safety and security in another country.

But what happens when these people flee is unfortunately often as horrific, or worse, than what they’ve experienced in their home country.

Thailand, like many other countries in the region, does not recognise refugees in its domestic law and is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention. Not only this, but Thai authorities have prevented boats from landing in Thailand and returned boats to sea, which in at least one incident, reportedly led to the death of more than 90 individuals in January 2013.

I met a group of Rohingya women and children while in Thailand and heard evidence firsthand of the terrible journey that refugees endure on their journey to "safety".

One woman I met told me she had no choice but to flee after her home and everything in it was burnt down. Another recounted how she witnessed her parents being murdered in front of her.

I also met a Rohingya man whose story illustrated in human terms what Australia’s election debate has been fixated on: a person so desperate to find safety and a future for his family that he will get on a boat and make the journey to Australia, despite the dangers. There was no convincing him otherwise.

He told me that he had a successful business in Burma until death threats made him scared to set foot outside his own home. Feeling helpless, he fled with his family to Thailand. Now in Thailand, where he is unable to legally work and is at constant risk of arrest, detention, exploitation and potential deportation, he believes he has only one real choice: to make his way to Indonesia and get on a boat to Australia.

I tried to explain the dangers of this option, using the warnings we’ve heard countless times from politicians in Australia with the hope that he’d not become another number in an immigration department press release.

I said even if he and his family did survive the dangerous boat journey, they would face detention on Nauru or Manus Island. But he was adamant. The choice was clear and the hope for a better, safer and more stable future trumped the risk involved.

This is a person who sees Australia as a safe haven. Politicians from both sides of politics will make public judgments about whether he is a "genuine" refugee, which will likely downplay the appalling conditions from which he's fled.

They will ignore the fact that seeking asylum from persecution is a human right and that refugees are entitled to international protection; the most recent statistics show over 90 per cent of asylum-seekers arriving by boat in Australia are eventually recognised as refugees.

It’s the stories of refugees and Australia’s international obligations that should inform the debate Australians are so vigorously involved in.

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