House debates

Monday, 20 August 2018

Private Members' Business

Rohingya People

11:01 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) that Saturday, 25 August 2018 marks one year since close to 700,000 Rohingya—mostly women and children—were forced to begin fleeing their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar;

(b) that the Government of Bangladesh leads the humanitarian response and has kept its borders open to Rohingya refugees while the Bangladeshi people of Bangladesh continue to show tremendous generosity and hospitality in the face of a massive influx;

(c) that since September 2017, Australia has contributed $70 million to the Rohingya crisis response and continues to have an important role calling for an outcome which allows Rohingya people to fully exercise their human rights;

(d) Australia's support for the implementation of recommendations from the report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State; and

(e) the Australian community's generosity in providing financial support to the crisis; and

(2) urges the international community to:

(a) support Bangladesh to provide an appropriate, principled humanitarian response to the needs of displaced and affected communities;

(b) ensure humanitarian aid is delivered where it is needed in accordance with fundamental human rights; and

(c) work with all parties in the pursuit of inclusive peace and reconciliation, and to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

I rise today to recognise the first anniversary of the humanitarian emergency arising from one of the most horrific cases of ethnic cleansing we have seen in recent times. One year ago this week, the Rohingya people started their long and often dangerous journey to flee persecution, the destruction of their homes and property and the horrific violence occurring across the Rakhine state in Myanmar. They fled to Cox's Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh. Within months, 700,000 Rohingya refugees had descended into what has very quickly become the world's largest refugee camp. The incredible speed of the exodus created a crisis of catastrophic proportions which aid agencies have found near impossible at times to keep pace with. The enormity of providing food, water, shelter and sanitation to so many people in such a short period of time was a task much larger than anyone could have imagined.

In November last year, I had the honour of visiting Cox's Bazar on the invitation of both Oxfam and CARE Australia to see firsthand the sheer scale of this unfolding tragedy. I thought I was well prepared for that journey to Cox's Bazar, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of 700,000 people crammed into a very small area. For kilometre after kilometre, all you can see is refugee camps. I don't believe such a megacamp exists anywhere else in the world.

Camp residents still today lack adequate water, sanitation, food, medical care and of course access to any form of economic means of creating a livelihood. Most resources are desperately needed. The UN appeal for $1.2 billion—the amount estimated to be needed this year—remains at just 32 per cent of that target. That means that we have found less than one-third of what is required to meet the needs of people right now. It's the responsibility of all countries, particularly wealthy countries like Australia, to do what we can to keep these refugees both sheltered and safe. Of course, we want to see a time when the Rohingya can voluntarily return to Myanmar to live in peace and safety with the citizenship rights that they have long been denied. But that simply isn't possible at this stage, and, quite frankly, it's hard to envisage a time in the near future when that will be the case.

In the meantime, the international community has a vital role in working with both the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments to identify a long-term solution for the Rohingya people. I call on all parties involved to really make a concerted effort to ensure that we implement the recommendations from the Kofi Annan led advisory commission on the Rakhine State. In a week when we mourn the death of Kofi Annan, I can think of no better way to honour that man's life and his lifelong commitment to peace than to ensure that the international community get this right in our approach to a long-term solution for the Rohingya people.

One year on, the number of Rohingya now living in refugee camps has climbed to beyond 700,000, and that means there is a density of more than 1,000 times what is recommended for refugee camps.. So you can just imagine the kinds of pressures that come to bear on that situation. I am especially worried about the impacts on women and children in those camps. They make up 80 per cent of the camp residents. There are huge child protection issues that are of grave concern both to the people within the camps and to the international community at large. I also would like to put on record that despite all of the challenges, the Bangladeshi government and its people should be so warmly congratulated for their efforts to ensure humanity is gained. Thank you. (Time expired)

Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Batman, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve the right to speak.

11:06 am

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Newcastle for raising this important issue. We are all concerned about the human rights abuses that have occurred in Myanmar's Rakhine State. The scale of this tragedy is enormous. Over 700,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 2017, while more than 530,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State—all need humanitarian assistance.

I am pleased to note that, as we do so often, Australia has responded generously to the crisis, providing $70 million in humanitarian assistance since September 2017. These funds have provided emergency supplies in the Rakhine State and essential services for displaced people in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. We have also prioritised our support towards the needs of women and children, who remain vulnerable to violence and exploitation, including trafficking. Australia's assistance has contributed to 974,000 people receiving food and the education of 530,000 children. Our commitment has included more than just money. Australia has also deployed 36 specialists to fill critical roles over the course of the crisis. This includes a site engineer deployed to the World Food Program, to supervise construction of a bridge, enabling them to send food trucks to camps hosting over 100,000 refugees.

The government has been encouraged by the strong engagement from the Australian community since the onset of the crisis. In 2017, DFAT partnered with a range of non-government organisations to launch a joint appeal for Myanmar and Bangladesh. Additionally, over a four-week period, Australians raised over $5.3 million for the eight participating organisations. The Australian government provided $5 million to match this donation.

The government has consistently raised Australia's concerns with Myanmar. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have registered our concerns directly with Myanmar's state councillor, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, also held discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi and other Myanmar government representatives during her visit to Myanmar. Just two weeks ago the foreign minister raised it with the Union Minister for International Cooperation, U Kyaw Tin, at the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting and with the Minister of Home Affairs, U Kyaw Swe, at the Bali Process Ministerial Conference. The foreign minister regularly raises Australia's concerns with regional partners, most recently at the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting in early August. The foreign minister and defence minister also discussed how best to respond to the crisis with their UK and US counterparts last month.

We all have a clear interest in helping Myanmar and Bangladesh resolve this crisis, given its regional dimensions. The Rohingya crisis is the largest humanitarian crisis in our region—hopefully, the tide has turned on it. We commend the government of Bangladesh for its generosity in responding. The government also welcomes the memorandum of understanding on repatriation between Myanmar and UN agencies and advocates for the safe, voluntary, dignified, sustainable return of displaced Rohingya from Bangladesh. Australia stands ready to support the government of Myanmar in implementing the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission on Rakhine State. Australia has called for a thorough, credible and independent investigation of human rights abuses. Perpetrators must be held to account. We support the UN fact-finding mission, and it is essential that Myanmar allows it access. We will respond to the fact-finding mission's findings when they are handed down in the coming months. Australia has supported resolutions and issued statements at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly calling for accountability, unfettered humanitarian access to Rakhine State and the implementation of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan advisory commission.

On the last note, I would like to pay tribute to the great Kofi Annan, who sadly passed away yesterday. He was a giant in this field of compassion and sympathetic international relations. His voice commanded respect from governments and offered hope to the oppressed. He was one of the truly great statesmen, and we will miss him deeply.

11:12 am

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Batman, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this motion and was very happy to second it. I too visited the Rohingya refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border two weeks ago. Six parliamentarians were guests of Save the Children Australia and, just like this motion states, the delegation saw the positive impact that our international aid has had in response to this remarkable crisis. Australia has contributed around $70 million to the response over the last 12 months and is in the top four contributing countries. This solidarity is on display in so many ways: water pumps, bags of rice and other food items, medical clinics and so much more. We were also able to witness the amazing contributions that our NGOs—Save the Children, Oxfam, and CARE—make in improving the lives and hopes of the Rohingya refugees. It is clear that our aid and solidarity, along with that of other countries, have prevented a humanitarian disaster.

It is now almost exactly 12 months since the first refugees flooded across the border, reporting atrocities at the hands of Myanmar soldiers. What was then a forest refuge complete with wandering elephants is now a medium-sized city of almost one million people. The infrastructure of the camps and the food, health and social programs for over 900,000 people, many of whom are still traumatised by the death of loved ones, are quite remarkable. One of the key lessons I learnt was that it will be crucial to provide men and women with real education and opportunities to earn a livelihood within the camps. Work is dignity, and the Rohingya are a determined and hardworking people, not used to doing nothing. We met young people who had completed or nearly completed high school in Myanmar, whose hopes have now been shattered. They don't even have any books to read, let alone opportunities for further study or employment. Yet they too are helping their brothers and sisters in the brother-sister programs, teaching very young children who can't get into the early learning centres.

The reality is that the vast majority of refugees will be there for the medium to long term. A looming question is: how does development occur that gives the Rohingya hope and opportunity but also deals with the equally pressing needs of the Bangladesh population. To date, the Bangladeshis have been unbelievably generous towards their displaced neighbours. However, you can see that this welcome could start to fray, especially if the Rohingya start taking up local economic and job opportunities that the locals believe should be theirs. Many UN and NGO programs are now delivering around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the funding to host communities to try to compensate for this.

This all plays into what commitment Australia will make in the medium to long term. We are, as I said, amongst the largest donors, with around $70 million over the last 12 months, and this doesn't include aid to Bangladesh itself. We can be proud of that response. However, as a nation we need to lift our aid effort to both the Rohingya camps and to this region of Bangladesh. Funding UN agencies and NGOs to deliver food, water and sanitation is a relatively simple thing to do. But how we might contribute to economic development in the region, thus giving both the Rohingya and the local Bangladeshis opportunities and hope, will require much more complex thinking. That sustained and more complex contribution can and should be made. I remind honourable members that Australia's international aid budget has been the clearest victim of belt-tightening in recent years. Our current aid budget is 0.27 per cent, around 16th on the OECD list of countries. It is shameful that a country like Australia can't find the money to play our role in lifting the living standards and opportunities of our neighbours. Increasing our aid budget is an important step.

It really was an honour to meet with so many brave and resilient Rohingya. I would like to thank the organisations that made it happen, especially Save the Children Australia, who organised the delegation, and note how much I enjoyed the bipartisan approach to the trip. I learnt that Australia is making a huge difference to the lives of a million people in dire need, in an isolated part of our region. I also learnt that we have so much more to do to make this fantastic initial response sustainable. I, for one, will continue to advocate with my colleagues that this government and the next continue to make a strong contribution to the welfare of the Rohingya people and, of course, their Bangladeshi hosts.

11:16 am

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this motion and join the member for Batman in speaking in support of this motion. I was also on the trip with the member for Batman and the member for Paterson amongst others. It was a real bipartisan trip and one which I very much enjoyed. From the point of view of someone who has grown up in Australia and never been to a Third World country, I had the opportunity to go along and see firsthand how other people live, how these refugees are living in Bangladesh and how Australian aid is being used wisely. It was a good trip and I want to thank the members opposite and everyone on the trip for attending.

According to some of the statistics, there have been some 880,000 people from Myanmar flood into Bangladesh—700,000 of those in the last 12 months; 55 per cent are children under the age of 18; 52 per cent are female, which is pretty standard, I suppose; and 80 per cent are either female or children under the age of 18. The government of Bangladesh has done a great job accepting people fleeing persecution. That's a lot of people who have flooded over the border in the last 12 months, fleeing for their lives.

I had the opportunity to see firsthand how Australian aid and other aid from the USA, from Britain and from other countries is being spent. Save the Children funded the trip for parliamentarians and other Australian representatives. It was not government funded; it was funded by Save the Children and a private donor. We looked closely at what PLAN, CARE, Oxfam—and I see Kate Anderson, who was on the trip, is here today; thank you, Kate—BRAC and the World Food Programme are doing. They are all people with a strong heart for trying to help people and they want to see people live with dignity. I thank all those organisations and all of the volunteers that I met on the trip.

It was good to see what the World Food Programme are doing. I had a chance to speak with Peter Guest, who has been working in this space for around 20 to30 years. He was very knowledgeable and he congratulated Australia on the $70 million we have contributed. Fifteen million of that has gone towards food. The food that they receive is quite good, and they've been able to expand the variety that people can buy. They have a card which has credit on it that they can buy food with. Peter did mention that other countries need to do more, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the European Union where Peter is a national. I would say to the foreign minister, the Minister for Trade, the Prime Minister and their opposition counterparts that something we can do as a government is talk to those other countries and ask them to invest more in Bangladesh and the Myanmar people.

I say to people in my electorate: Australian aid is being spent wisely. I looked at the latrines that were being built. I looked at the water wells and the pumps that they use for fresh water. I looked at what Oxfam was doing around treating wastewater and, obviously, looked at the food program. We looked at the learning centres for children, which bring a lot of joy. They get a couple of hours each day to learn just like our kids do at school, but, obviously, it's not enough. We need to invest more in education, because not all children get to go.

What struck me was they obviously have food, clothing and shelter—and the groups I mentioned before are doing a good job there—however, they don't have things like lighting or electricity, and that can be a safety issue for women, in particular, at night. They don't have things that we take for granted like showers. If they want to wash themselves, they've got to stand in the rain with a cake of soap or go down to some sort of dirty river and have a shower there.

I want to say to the people in my electorate: Australian aid is being spent wisely and it does help people around the world. Our economy is continuing to grow. I'm very focused on jobs and helping my electorate, but I think we can also invest some of this money to help other countries, and I'm very proud to do so.

11:21 am

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak in support of my neighbour and friend, the member for Newcastle's motion. One year ago this Saturday hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women and children, were forced to flee their homes in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar and flee to Bangladesh. Currently, almost one million people shelter in self-made bamboo and plastic bag huts in a megacamp that stretches 10 kilometres long by eight kilometres wide. It is something that, until you see it with your own eyes, you really can't comprehend.

These people fled from shocking human rights violations and large-scale intense targeted violence. They fled their homes in a country where they are denied citizenship, where they can't move about freely, go to the doctor or find work. The atrocities they fled in many cases are unimaginable. These people crossed the border into Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, and they crossed in droves. They walked to freedom. There are almost a million refugees in Bangladesh right now.

Save the Children, who hosted the learning trip that I was fortunate enough to attend, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, report that more than half a million Rohingya people arrived within the space of one month. Of those fleeing persecution in Myanmar, more than half are children under 18 and around three per cent are aged over 60. One in six families are headed by single mothers whose husbands are dead or missing.

The people and the government of Bangladesh have shown incredible hospitality and humbling generosity to the fleeing Rohingya people. They kept their borders open—I still feel quite emotional—and are leading the humanitarian response. According to the United Nations, there are more Rohingya living in Bangladesh than in Myanmar at the moment. But the generosity of the Bangladeshi people isn't enough, as magnificent as it has been. Bangladesh, a poverty-stricken nation in its own right, is heaving under the strain and it has had to put on infrastructure, health and water services for the influx of Rohingya that it has received.

Australia, as a nation, has reached out to those in crisis and those working to help them. Since September, we've contributed $70 million to mitigate the crisis. That sounds a phenomenal number, and I must admit that there are constituents in my electorate of Paterson who bail me up every day and say: 'Meryl, charity starts at home. Why are we giving so much money overseas when we've got drought-stricken farmers and we've got homeless people?' I understand their thinking, but I say to those in the chamber and to my constituents in Paterson: 'If I could take you all to see this megacamp, you would gladly give. These people are living in poverty that we can't even imagine. And our farmers would give too.' It is really quite humbling.

When I was offered to take the tour to Bangladesh earlier this month, to learn about the way our $70 million in aid is being spent, I took the opportunity, and it is a trip I will never forget. As you can hear in my voice, I have been impacted. It gave me a perspective that I doubt anyone could fully appreciate unless they looked into the eyes of those people, particularly those beautiful children, and those who are working to help them. I really want to praise the Bangladeshi people, and I want to praise the response organisations working tirelessly to provide sanitation, housing, health care, food and education. But the reality is that the makeshift refugee camps are rife with incidents of gender based violence. The shelters are flimsy and at risk of destruction during the monsoon season, which is upon us now. Landslides are a real risk. Diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin diseases, like scabies, are rampant, largely due to poor sanitation and hygiene, and there have been more than 8,000 cases of diphtheria, which is particularly risky for children.

I want to again thank the member for Newcastle and thank the people from Save the Children and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who paid for me to go and witness this. We need to do more. We need to put pressure on the Myanmar government to grant citizenship to these people, and the Rohingya will walk home to their rightful place: the Rakhine State.

11:27 am

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too acknowledge the great contribution of the member for Newcastle in bringing this motion before us today. I have spoken on a number of occasions in the parliament about the ongoing humanitarian crisis involving the Myanmar security forces and those in the Rakhine State, the Rohingya Muslims. Saturday, 25 August this year is important, as it marks one year since the escalation of violence in the Rakhine State—one year since the situation escalated from violence and abuse to atrocities and a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions which has resulted in the displacement of over 700,000 people from the Rakhine State. The situation has been described by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch as a 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing' and 'crimes against humanity'.

Clearly, there have been atrocities committed against the Rohingya. Evidence from a number of investigations carried out by Human Rights Watch has documented a series of brutal crackdowns by the security forces against the ethnic Rohingya Muslims, involving extrajudicial killings; the torture and suffering of men, women and children; arson; and the destruction and takeover of more than 300 villages by the Myanmar military.

It is important to note the long history of discrimination that has existed against the Rohingya. The Myanmar government continues to deny the Rohingya citizenship and basic government services such as health and education. It is this abhorrent denial of basic human rights that has legitimised the treatment of the Rohingya more recently; however, this escalation is of a different kind. This is now a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Bangladesh, to its credit, has opened its doors to the Rohingya and continues to show tremendous generosity and hospitality in the face of this grave crisis. Despite the challenges that it faces domestically, Bangladesh has shown itself to be a true leader of the humanitarian response. Nevertheless, this makes the Rohingya in Bangladesh reliant on humanitarian assistance for their basic services. The risk now is markedly higher, given the full impact of the monsoon season. According to UNICEF, about 200,000 Rohingya refugees, of whom over 50 per cent are children, are already being well and truly threatened by the monsoons. They provide statistics that show that, in Bangladesh, over 900 shelters and 200 latrines have already been destroyed. Water points have also been washed away, and people have been buried under collapsing walls of mud. Waterborne diseases are regarded as a very high risk. While agencies such as UNICEF, Oxfam and Save the Children are working hard to move families to safer ground, the large number of refugees makes it very near impossible to relocate all these individuals to safety.

I note that Kofi Annan, regrettably, died over the weekend. As Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, he had stated:

We recognise that the challenges facing Rakhine State and its peoples are complex and the search for lasting solutions will require determination, perseverance and trust. Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken immediately …

While I'm pleased Australia is playing a crucial role in efforts to find a satisfactory position in terms of the return of the people of the Rakhine State, nevertheless there is a lot more that needs to be done. I call on the government to take a stronger stance against the authorities in Myanmar and to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission by reinforcing its commitment to support unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of the Rakhine State and refugee camps in Bangladesh. We must work closely with our regional partners to ensure that the government of Myanmar recommits to the pursuit of peace and a process of national reconciliation. The situation before the Australian government and the United Nations is urgent and one that requires immediate attention. We cannot merely play the role of bystander and hope for a satisfactory resolution. While these issues are intricate and deep-rooted, we must take the necessary steps to force change, otherwise we are really going to see a catastrophic situation emerge once again in Myanmar.

Debate adjourned.