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23 Apr 2021


From the CEO: Myanmar and refugees in the Asia-Pacific



In recent years, a significant portion of refugees who come to Australia have originated from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Syria and Iran. But Australia also offers refuge to people closer to home, with significant numbers of people coming from Myanmar, Bhutan and Tibet, like Tsering.

Myanmar in particular is a major source country for refugees, accounting for 1.1 million of 26 million refugees around the world in 2020. It is also one of the most high profile examples of displacement in our region due to the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya and Karen minorities. This focus has only increased with the recent military coup.

Twenty-six-year-old mother Sajeda Bahadurmia was among an earlier exodus of Rohingya people in 2013, when she and her husband boarded a boat with their children and came to Australia to seek asylum. SSI supported Sajeda through her initial settlement and she has gone on to volunteer with newly arrived individuals and families, and advocate on behalf of her own community.

But Myanmar is one of many countries in our region that is on the international radar due to displacement of its people. The situation is also uncertain in China, where concerns are growing over the treatment of the Uyghur minority and residents of Hong Kong, particularly those involved in the pro-democracy movement.

Australia has a track record of coming to the aid of our neighbours. The most historic examples of this are former prime minister Bob Hawke’s live-to-air offer of asylum to some 42,000 Chinese nationals at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He followed in the footsteps of former prime minister Malcom Fraser, who opened the door to more than 50,000 Vietnamese people following the fall of Saigon.

Already, our federal government has created a pathway for about 10,000 Hong Kong citizens studying or working in Australia to extend their visas for at least five years. While a blanket extension has not been offered to Myanmar nationals, our government has reassured visa holders that they won’t be returned to Myanmar when their visas expire.

As a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Australia has an obligation to extend certain rights to people who receive refugee status due to war or persecution. These ‘rights’ include the right to not be returned to persecution.

This principle of non-refoulement is a foundational element of the UN convention, and one that should underpin all country’s approaches to refugees within their territories and countries.

At SSI, these obligations are front of mind as we engage with our peers internationally to gain a global perspective on, and contribute to, international dialogue on refugee and migration issues.

SSI is linked to advocacy efforts in the Asia-Pacific region as an organisational partner of the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). Our APRRN partners such as Fortify Rights have called on the international community for immediate and collective action to end the Myanmar junta’s widespread and systematic killing of unarmed people.

In the meantime, we must do all that is within our power to safeguard the welfare of residents of these countries who are on Australian shores and ensure we live up to Australia’s legacy as a safe haven for people fleeing war and persecution.

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