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Australia ups its Syrian refugee intake – but what about its own backyard?

Australia should not wait until bodies are washed up on foreign beaches before it is spurred to action on addressing refugee flows. Reuters/Dimitris Michalakis

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Wednesday that Australia will increase its intake of Syrian refugees. In addition to Australia’s annual humanitarian intake of 13,750, Australia will accept a one-off increase of 12,000 Syrian refugees and provide A$44 million in funding for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It is right that Australia should share the burden of providing humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees. But it should not wait until bodies are washed up on foreign beaches before it is spurred to action.

And nor should Australia reserve its help for those fleeing conflict in distant wars. Its first duty should be to those who face death and persecution in its own region.

There are both practical and moral reasons for this. Practically, it is faster and more effective to provide sanctuary to those closer to home and to repatriate those who wish to return when it is safe to do so. Morally, it is Australia’s neighbours to whom it owes its first duty of assistance.

Doing better for the Rohingya

Leadership in the provision of humanitarian relief means acting before tragedy occurs. Australians should be thinking now of those among its neighbours who face death and persecution at home.

Which people have tried to flee their country in unsafe boats? Which people have been dying in the attempt? Whose future seems utterly without hope?

Myanmar’s Rohingya people must surely spring to mind. But when asked in May if Australia would accept any more Rohingya refugees, Abbott said:

Nope, nope, nope … I’m sorry. If you want a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.

For decades, the Burmese government persecuted the Rohingya as an ethnic and religious minority. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in camps on either side of the Burmese-Bangladesh border. Myanmar’s recent turn to democracy has not improved the plight of the Rohingya: it has made it worse.

As Myanmar’s government prepares for elections in November, it is tightening citizenship laws. It is constraining the Rohingya’s freedom to marry, have children and practise their religion. Greater freedom of the press since 2011 has meant freedom and a large audience for vitriolic anti-Muslim hate speech. Rohingya villages have been burned.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who championed the human rights of the Burmese people during her long years under house arrest, is silent on the issue of the Rohingya. President Thein Sein’s solution to the Rohingya problem is for the entire population to leave Myanmar and settle elsewhere.

The Rohingya are leaving Myanmar, travelling by boat or by land to Thailand and Bangladesh. They leave for the same reason that Syrians leave their country: because they risk dying, or seeing their children die, and they see no hope for peace or security.

The Rohingya’s journey is often fatal. Their graves are found in abandoned camps in jungle along the Thai-Malay border, or their bodies are thrown into the sea after they die of starvation on boats.

The Rohingya continue to be persecuted as an ethnic and religious minority. EPA/Nyunt Win

Meeting the (regional) challenge

In the decade following the Vietnam War, Australia accepted around 100,000 Vietnamese refugees and humanitarian settlers. Some of them came by boat. Some of them died trying.

Australia’s response to the crisis in Indochina was the final confirmation that the White Australia policy was dead. It no longer intended to deny its geography and reserve its compassion only for the victims of European wars.

In the face of suffering on its doorstep, Australians accepted the challenge issued by The Sydney Morning Herald in its lead headline of November 23, 1977:

Here is a test of our democratic idealism. Let us meet it.

The Australian government’s agreement to accept very large numbers of refugees – around 8000 Vietnamese per year between 1981 and 1991 – had the effect of dramatically decreasing the number of unauthorised boat arrivals. Between 1982 and 1988 there were no unauthorised boat arrivals.

The boats only began to arrive again when Australia signed up to the Comprehensive Plan of Action and sharply reduced its rate of acceptance of refugees.

Contrary to what Abbott claims, stopping the boats will not stop the Rohingya or others in the region from trying to leave countries such as Myanmar. Bodies may not be washed up on Australia’s beaches, but they will end up on the beaches of its neighbours.

Australia cannot accept the entire Rohingya population and not all of them wish to settle here. But as it prepares to rescue thousands of Syrian refugees, Australia should be looking not just to join a global bandwagon of sympathy. It should also help those who are very close to home.

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