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Australia's failure to show leadership regarding Rohingya refugees

By Alice Aslan - posted Thursday, 28 May 2015


Rohingya refugees are at the moment one of the most unwanted people in the world. First of all they are an unwanted Muslim minority, a "stateless people" denied citizenship in their own country Myanmar. So thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been recently fleeing on boats the brutal state repression and abject poverty

Although they have been stranded in their boats at sea, the neighboring countries in the region including Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia at the beginning refused to help the Rohingya. And Human Rights Watch condemned these countries for "playing a deadly game of human ping pong" for refusing to allow these boats to land on their shores.

But the good news is in a recent tweet, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that they have to prevent loss of life, and has eventually ordered the navy and the coast guard to search for Rohingya refugees stranded at sea and to rescue them.

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Also Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide temporary refuge to the Rohingya, and Thailand said it wouldn't turn away these refugees who wish to enter its waters and will provide them with humanitarian assistance.

Even Turkey, a Muslim country not in the region but which likes to play a leadership role within the Muslim world, has sent a ship from Turkish Armed Forces to join the efforts to rescue Rohingya Muslims, and has also pledged to donate $1 million to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide humanitarian aid for the Rohingya.

Every crisis creates an opportunity for leadership. And Australia, a so-called liberal democracy that values human rights, has failed not only to show compassion for the most vulnerable but also to play a leadership role in this crisis in the region.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected with contempt to save and settle any of the thousands of Rohingya Muslims with a warning that "asylum seekers who take to boats must not be rewarded with a new life in a Western country".

And Abbott told reporters "Nope, nope, nope!" "We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats. If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better".

He highlighted that Australia's role should be to do everything possible to stop people smuggling and the best way to do this is to give asylum seekers the message that "if you get on a leaky boat, you aren't going to get what you want, which is a new life in a Western country".

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As Clementine Ford points out "it was John Howard who cultivated Australia's cruelty towards asylum seekers, and it is he our current leaders are shamelessly trying to emulate".

And Ghassan Hage suggests that Australians' general outrage against the boat people stems from "the sensitivity of thieves" "linking the invasion and theft of Australian land from its traditional owners by white settlers 200 years ago with current attitudes to asylum".

Although Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and takes in significant number of refugees every year to resettle, it has become a callous, narrow-minded nation with no leadership qualities with its unbending "turn back boats policy" in order to guard its borders from the so-called "invading hordes".

But the price to pay for such an attitude is to become a little, coward nation with no courage to show great compassion and to set an example as a leader.

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About the Author

Alice Aslan is a Turkish-Australian anthropologist, writer and activist based in Sydney. She is passionate about the arts, ideas and justice. She is the author of "Islamophobia in Australia". She can be contacted at alice.aslan@gmail.com

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