Rohingya Refugees Ponder Future Minus Australia Option

By Simon Roughneen 14 October 2013

KUALA LUMPUR — Australia’s clampdown on refugees and migrants trying to reach the country’s shores by boat has prompted uncertainty among Rohingya who, facing state oppression and attacks by Arakanese Buddhists, have fled Burma in the tens of thousands in recent years.

Since Australia’s now-ousted Labor government decided in July to prevent refugees traveling by sea from landing in Australia—saying that would-be arrivals would be taken to processing centers in neighboring Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG)—some Rohingya who had hopes of making it to Australia are now in a bind.

“We are disappointed, we feel like we are stuck,” said Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHOM). “Many of us do not have papers here [in Malaysia] and we have no status in Burma. It is a difficult situation for anyone who hoped to travel to Australia,” Ahmad told The Irrawaddy.

Thousands of Rohingya refugees undertake a treacherous maritime journey from western Burma to Thailand or Malaysia. From there some in turn hope to reach Australia, usually attempting another dangerous maritime crossing through the Indian Ocean.

Between 25,000-30,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled Burma since June 2012, when clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State turned deadly, with the Rohingya making up the majority of those displaced by violence in the region. Burma is home to an estimated five million Muslims in all, comprising groups such as the Kaman, who unlike the Rohingya, are recognized by the Burma government.

However, Canberra’s tightening-up on sea arrivals has dampened interest in sailing to Australia among Rohingya in Malaysia, who are estimated to number between 30,000 to 40,000 in all, counting just over 30,000 registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others unlisted. “The new Australia policy of resettlement to PNG and Nauru has definitely cooled down the Rohingya about taking the risk,” said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which documents living conditions for Rohingya in Burma and beyond.

Rohingya arrivals to Australia are difficult to quantify, as those who do make it are listed as “stateless” by Australia, while some others who arrived in Australia over recent years claimed to be Rohingya but were assessed by Australia to be either Bangladeshi nationals or Burmese Muslims, according to Chris Lewa.

Australian government statistics—covering the years from 1998 to 2012—list 2,204 stateless maritime arrivals to Australia, a cohort that includes Kurds, Palestinians and Rohingya. Migrant arrivals by boat to Australia have shot up in recent years, from 6,535 passengers landing onboard 134 vessels in 2010 to 17,202 arrivals on 278 boats last year, according to Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

In Australia’s recent national elections, parties competed to offer the most stringent regulations on maritime arrivals. One reason given by Australia is that the boats reaching Australian shores are too often run by people smugglers who extort a high price from their passengers, most of whom travel from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka and some of whom are assessed by Australia to be economic migrants rather than refugees.

“Don’t risk your life or waste your time or money by paying people smugglers. If you pay a people smuggler you are buying a ticket to another country,” reads a notice on the website of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

A voter backlash against the arrival of over 40,000 asylum seekers since 2007, when policy was relaxed for a time, prompted both of Australia’s main parties to suggest tighter controls. But critics say Australia’s “offshore processing”—referring to the assessing of asylum claims in PNG and Nauru—of maritime arrivals is contrary to the country’s moral obligations. Additional measures aimed at dissuading maritime refugee arrivals, which have been proposed by new Prime Minister Tony Abbott, could contravene Australia’s obligations under international law, according to human rights groups.

Indonesia is a common transit point for refugees trying to reach Australia, Rohingya included. At least 28 Middle Eastern migrants drowned when a boat, which was aiming to reach Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, sank off Indonesia in late September.

That tragedy came just before Abbott visited Indonesia, which like Malaysia and Thailand—two other common destinations or transit points for Rohingya—is not a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

In June this year a group of 99 “boat people,” including some 73 Rohingya, sought to sail to Australia but were forced ashore at East Timor by engine trouble, after which they were taken to Indonesia, where they remain at a detention center in Makassar on the island of Sulawesi.

Some from the group have tried to escape, citing cramped conditions, with 15 people staying in rooms measuring 18 feet by 40 feet, according to an account by Rafi Zaw Win, a Rohingya in the center.

“Please help us to safety to Australia and or to any resettlement country where we would be able to continue our lives for safety,” implored Rafi Zaw Win.