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Rohingya Refugees Ponder Future Minus Australia Option

More than 90 refugees are being held at the Makassar
Immigration Detention Center on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island after being pushed
back from East Timor shores. (Photographer’s name withheld)
By Simon Roughneen
October 14, 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.