Stop passing the buck with refugees

2 August 2013, 00:00 UTC | New Zealand, Australia
Syrian Refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq © Amnesty International
By Grant Bayldon - Executive Director Amnesty International NZ

The Asia Pacific region is probably the worst part of the world to be a refugee in. Not only does it have more refugees, it has less protection for them compared to anywhere else in the world.

While in Thailand, I visited Rohingya women and children who had fled from appalling atrocities in Burma. I should be used to such stories, having worked for Amnesty International for so long - but I don’t think I ever will be.

These women had been so desperate to escape that they had fled to Thailand, a terrifying three-week journey in a small open fishing boat packed with 100 people. Some were pregnant – one delivered her baby on the boat. All had terrible stories: houses burnt, family members killed.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Burma who have faced severe discrimination for centuries and are denied equal access to citizenship in their own country. Now in Thailand, the women and children had some room to move around, but their husbands remained caged like animals in a separate detention centre.

Unbelievably, in some ways they were the lucky ones. Many Rohingya fleeing Burma by boat fall into the hands of human traffickers who sell them as slave labourers on fishing boats, or into the sex industry. Some are allegedly towed out to sea by the Thai Navy, stripped of fuel and supplies and left to die.

For those who have made it to Thailand and other  countries, their problem is that – like most countries in the region – Thailand isn’t a signatory to the Refugee Convention. This means asylum seekers have no guarantee of protection.

What’s worse is that Thailand refuses to allow the United Nations to register the Rohingya for the UN refugee resettlement programme. Even if they did, places are scarce. In Thailand, as in most other countries, they are simply illegal migrants liable to fall prey to human traffickers or indefinite detention.

It’s no wonder so many people are trying to get on boats to Australia. But the Australian Government announced it will now refuse to resettle asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Instead they will be permanently deported to Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd paints the arrivals as a catastrophe engulfing Australia. The Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott claims most are economic migrants seeking a better standard of living.

At first Rudd seems right. The numbers are significant, with almost 16,000 arriving so far this year. Until you look at it as a proportion of Australia’s total annual migrant immigration, which brings in an additional 185,000 new Australians each year.

And Abbott’s claim? As you might guess, it’s not easy to meet the requirements of being a refugee. Poverty alone won’t get you there; you must prove that you are fleeing human rights abuses or war. More than 90 per cent of arrivals in Australia are found to be exactly that: genuine refugees.

Then there’s the deterrent claim – that tough policies are necessary to stop people dying at sea. This was Australia's justification for offshore processing. New Zealand passed similar legislation to allow for mass detention of asylum seekers.

But the get-tough approach of making asylum seekers wait for years in inhumane conditions in Nauru and on Manus Island didn’t work. They kept coming.

The biggest group arriving in Australia are Afghanis, mostly the Hazara ethnic group so dreadfully persecuted by the Taliban. Could Australia or New Zealand’s policies ever be so terrifying that they’d rather stay and face the Taliban?

The real tragedy is that both Australia and New Zealand's actions diminish what moral credibility we have to play the role of brokers in the region. We should be working with receiving countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to help them create opportunities for refugees. Not implementing failed get-tough policies, and certainly not playing pass the parcel.

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