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Refugee boat. Image: Wikimedia

Existential threat could drive new mass migration crisis

By John Coyne

Last weekend, while many of us were feasting on chocolate, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency was busy intercepting a boat carrying 56 Rohingya men, women and children. A simple enough operation, involving just one boat, however, it’s a worrying development for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It’s the first boat carrying Rohingya refugees detected this year. For Australia, it might also be a warning that the window of opportunity for our government to prevent another mass migration crisis might be closing.

The Rohingya are the indigenous Muslim people of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. This group are often described by media and human rights organisations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

In early 2015, almost 25,000 Rohingya took to boats to escape persecution from Myanmar’s Buddhist government. This mass migration flow caused a crisis across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It also illustrated to the region’s leaders that they aren’t immune from sudden and large scale irregular migration flows like those seen in Europe.

Over the last three years the efforts by Bangladeshi, Thai, Malaysian and Sri Lankan authorities have effectively shut down the people smuggling and human trafficking networks used by Rohingya to cross the Andaman Sea. While these efforts have likely saved many lives, the root causes of the Rohingya crisis haven’t been resolved. And arguably, these are once more rising to boiling point.

Last month the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour made it clear that “the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar continues”.

Put simply, the situation for Rohingya in Myanmar is at best bleak, at worst they face a threat to their very existence.

While the pressure on Myanmar’s Rohingya continues to increase, it’s inevitable that they’ll look for opportunities to flee.

At present, Bangladesh is hosting more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees who’ve fled Myanmar. The UN argues that many of these people are ‘at risk of landslides, heavy rains and diseases when the monsoon season hits in June‘.

Last week, Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque said that by early June his government will begin relocating some 100,000 Rohingya refugees. Unfortunately for these Rohingya, they’re to be relocated to Bhasan Char, a desolate island off the country’s southern coast.

Bhasan Char isn’t just any normal island. It emerged from the waters in 2006 as a result of silt deposits. And is unsurprisingly highly vulnerable to the region’s extreme and violent weather patterns.

It’s questionable whether Bangladesh will, in terms of logistics, be able to move this number of Rohingya to such a remote location. And this announcement could also just be a clever diplomatic strategy to pressure Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to do more to address the Rohingya issue in Myanmar.

While this gamble may result in some further burden sharing arrangements, it’s unlikely to come anywhere near resolving the challenge.

Asia’s monsoon is just two months away. Its arrival will make already difficult journeys across the Andaman Sea even more perilous. Over the coming weeks some Rohingya may face the choice of go now, or never go.

All of these recent developments should serve as a warning to Australia’s government. The conditions in Bangladesh and Myanmar are ripe for sparking a new Rohingya mass migration crisis that could see hundreds die at sea. The growing desperation and disenfranchisement also brings with it potential future problems ranging from organised crime to terrorism.

Australia needs to enhance its bilateral and multilateral strategies to address the persecution of the Rohingyas, starting with upgrading our relationship with Bangladesh. And it must be relentless in its efforts to bring Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia together to work with Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue.

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 08 Apr 2018