In May 2015, about 8000 people were stranded on human trafficking boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Many of them were Rohingya refugees, fleeing violence in displacement camps in Myanmar. When asked whether Australia would resettle any of the Rohingya, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott answered "nope, nope, nope".

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya comprise a group of approximately 1.3 million Muslims living in the Rakhine State in Myanmar. About 140,000 of the Rohingya are displaced, having fled violence and discrimination in the Rakhine State. Over half of the displaced Rohingya are dispersed across South-East Asia. The remainder are in displacement camps in Myanmar.

The Rohingya are stateless: no country recognises them as citizens, including those who have been living in Myanmar for generations. In 1982, Myanmar passed a law denying the Rohingya citizenship. The law also removed the Rohingya’s rights to freedom of movement and access to education and services and enabled the government to compulsorily acquire the Rohingya’s property.

Some in Myanmar consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Earlier this year, at the instigation of the extremist Buddhist group known as the Ma Ba Tha, the national parliament and President Thein Sein legislated to deny the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities voting rights in Myanmar, and disqualified their candidates from the national election.

But with the recent victory of Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) in Myanmar’s first open democratic election in 25 years, the Rohingya are hopeful that they will be recognised as citizens of Myanmar.

What the election means for the Rohingya

In mid-November, the NLD won a landslide election victory. But the party has so far done little to indicate that the Rohingya will be granted citizenship in Myanmar. Suu Kyi did not acknowledge the Rohingya as people of Myanmar during the election campaign and not one of the candidates for the NLD in the election was Muslim, despite the 5 million Muslims who live in Myanmar. Suu Kyi is also barred from becoming president under the Constitution of Myanmar, and the extent of her power under the new government remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, representatives of the Rohingya living in refugee camps in India remain hopeful. The international community has voiced its concern about the plight of the Rohingya, and the international NGO Human Rights Watch has described the issue as the “single most defining test of [the Myanmar] government’s commitment to democratic change and the rule of law”.

Australia's response

In a report entitled Deadly Journeys, Amnesty International said that Rohingya refugees were killed and beaten by traffickers, and kept in inhumane conditions at sea during the crisis in May 2015.

Australia was criticised for refusing to resettle any of the Rohingya refugees who were stranded at sea or who reached Indonesia during the crisis. While Australia gave over $1 million to the UNHCR during the refugee crisis, unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, it did not offer to shelter or resettle any of the Rohingya. This response has been contrasted with Australia's offer to accept an emergency intake of 12,000 Syrians fleeing violence in the Middle East.

Read more about Australia's humanitarian program here.




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Last updated 6 December 2015