Peter Khalil: I also want to thank the member for Moncrieff for moving this motion and I, too, stand to speak on the dire situation faced by Rohingya people in Myanmar and Bangladesh—one of the worst situations in the region. Since 2017, more than 850,000 Rohingya have been violently forced from their homes in Myanmar into one of the largest refugee camps across the border in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya people have often been described as the world’s most persecuted minority. They’re a predominantly Muslim group of people who have been effectively stateless for decades. The Rohingya are not recognised by the Myanmar government as one of the country’s 135 distinct ethnic groups; nor are they considered to be citizens by the Myanmar government.
In January 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar and Rakhine state with a delegation of MPs with Save the Children, who do such great work in the region. We saw firsthand what the Rohingya were facing in those camps. Remarkably, we were able to visit some of these IDP camps which tens of thousands of Rohingya had been forced into following severe operations conducted against them by the military. These military operations were triggered by or were in response to nine Myanmar police officers being killed in October 2016 by Rohingya insurgents. Rather than a proportional response from the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, what we saw was a scorched-earth military response where the military razed thousands of Rohingya homes and villages across Rakhine state and further north, and there were estimates that around 3,000 Rohingya were killed; there were reports of children being killed; and there were reports of rape being used as a weapon of war. What we saw, effectively, was ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The Rohingya people continue to be in an extremely dangerous situation. Not only are they fleeing the violence against them in Myanmar; they’re also seeking refuge in Bangladesh—a country which, frankly, struggles to meet the housing, food and water needs of these hundreds of thousands of people in Cox’s Bazar. And now, with COVID-19, a new challenge exists. Up to 90,000 people live on one square kilometre of land, making it one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. With families living in one-room plastic-and-bamboo shelters, let’s be clear: physical distancing is next to impossible. In the communal bathrooms and the water points, soap and clean water are luxuries, making maintaining good hygiene extremely difficult. And, while we debate here whether we wear masks or not, in Cox’s Bazar there are simply not enough masks to go around.
Without the assistance of UNICEF, Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam and other international NGOs and UN agencies and the support from countries like Australia, among other countries, the situation would be even more dire than it is now. It’s estimated that 600,000 stateless Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, some 140,000 of whom are in IDP camps or camp-like conditions. Those who decide to cross into Bangladesh are treated as migrants with no legal status, and their ability to maintain a safe haven in that country is uncertain at best.
While I have welcomed the Australian government’s contributions to help with this crisis, I’ve also called here in this place for the Australian government to do more. In 2017, I called for the Australian government to consider reinstating the suspended autonomous sanctions ban on the Myanmar government. In fact, a bipartisan delegation went to see then foreign minister Julie Bishop with some of the feedback on these matters that we had received from our trip. We were obviously pleased that in 2018 we saw the government impose financial sanctions and travel bans on members of the Tatmadaw. In response to the release of the full report of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, which documented the human rights abuses committed primarily against these ethic communities.
In 2020 Australia has of course been focused on our own health and economic crises and what we must do to get us through them. But, while we do this, we must also never forget about the millions of persecuted people who are in such difficulty around the world, people like the Rohingya. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to these devastations that they face. We have a duty, I think, as a wealthy nation to lend a hand when it is needed and, as a democracy committed to human rights, to speak out about atrocities and condemn and sanction the perpetrators of those crimes. Given the scale of the persecution by the Tatmadaw and the associated parties and the refugee burden being imposed on Bangladesh, it is appropriate that we take these steps, because I think it is probably true to say that, in years to come, each of us will be asking ourselves, ‘What did we do when we were faced with these challenges?’