Last week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne made a three-day visit to Bangladesh; the first visit to the country by an Australian foreign minister since 1998, and the first by a member of the Australian cabinet since 2006. Payne’s visit to Bangladesh was primarily in order to attend the 3rd Indian Ocean Rim Association Ministerial Conference on the Blue Economy in Dhaka; however, she also took time to tour the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar, where there is an estimated 910,000 Rohingya who have fled persecution and violence in neighboring Myanmar.
Payne’s visit to visit Cox’s Bazar was designed for her to gain a first-hand account of the dire circumstances that the Rohingya currently find themselves in, and to observe how Australian aid is being distributed in order to alleviate some of this suffering. Inquiries made to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade by The Diplomat were unable to ascertain whether the foreign minister used the visit to announce any new aid packages. However, the Department of Home Affairs was able to provide information that Australia has delivered $89 million in humanitarian assistance since September 2017 for emergency supplies in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and for food, shelter, clean water, and health services for refugees located in Cox’s Bazar.
Australia’s response to the crisis has primarily focused on improving the condition of women and girls in the Bangladeshi refugee camps. While Canberra doesn’t have an overt feminist foreign policy like Sweden or Canada, it has internalized the evidence that the empowerment of women has a multiplier effect for families, groups, and wider societies, and has therefore shifted the implementation of its aid packages to reflect this reality. Canberra has made gender equality one of the five guiding principles of its current membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
While these relief packages are a welcome contribution, the wider issue of how countries like Australia are able to assist beyond aid remains a pressing concern. Struggling to cope with the extent of the refugee crisis, the Bangladeshi government is keen for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. Yet with refugees certain to face continued persecution if returned to Rakhine state, a recent attempt to repatriate 3,500 Rohingya failed due to their refusal to go. A report from May by Amnesty International indicated that the violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military on the Rohingya in Rakhine remains ongoing.
The situation for the Rohingya is further obstructed by the Bangladeshi government preventing children from attending schools, or allowed Rohingya to seek employment (although some men have been able to find informal work as day laborers outside the camps). This isolation has also been compounded by reports that, citing security concerns, the Bangladeshi government was planning cutting access to mobile phone services in the camps, limiting the refugee’s ability to communicate their plight and access opportunities that could improve their situations, like finding pathways to gain refugee status in third countries like Australia.
While Australia’s continued harsh treatment of asylum seekers who attempt to arrive in the country via maritime routes tends to inform both the domestic and international perspectives on Canberra’s position on refugees, the country does have a reasonably generous (per capita) refugee resettlement program. This is currently set at 18,750 people per annum. For the year 2017-2018, just over 2,000 refugee resettlement visas were granted to people from Myanmar. While this is a small percentage of the over 1 million people who have been displaced from Myanmar, for those 2,000 people, the opportunity is a godsend.
Beyond this, the Australian government has recently demonstrated an ability to recognize a similar crisis of this magnitude, and form a proportionate response. In 2015 Canberra created a temporary expansion of its refugee resettlement program in order to accommodate an additional 12,000 refugee visas for people from Syria and Iraq. But in doing so, there was a is a fairly blunt cost-benefit analysis conducted. It is relatively easy for countries like Australia (or Canada) to expand their resettlement programs to take in an increased number of Syrians and Iraqis, as most are educated professionals with ready-made skills to offer. These people would also have access to well-established community groups and employment networks in Australian cities. They would quickly and easily become taxpayers.
However, this is not the case with Rohingya. The oppression the Rohingya have faced over the past several decades has led to scarce opportunities for education and skill development, and incredibly poor health outcomes. The resettlement of significant numbers of Rohingya would require far greater and longer-term investment from the Australian government. This leads Canberra (and other western governments) to balk at considering a similar temporary expansion to the refugee resettlement program that was offered to Syrians and Iraqis.
Yet this adds an extra problematic layer to the hopelessness of the situation for the Rohingya. While Australia may be working through ASEAN to try and shift the behavior of Myanmar, this offers no immediate solutions to the crisis. And if the Rohingya are unwilling to return to Myanmar for fear of further violence, Bangladesh is unable (or uninclined) to absorb the group, and countries like Australia are only able to offer small numbers of refugee visas, then the situation will remain intractable for some time to come.