The Abbott government is set for a major regional embarrassment with one of four refugees — an ethnic Muslim Rohingya — who agreed to resettle in Cambodia at a cost of at least $50 million to Australian taxpayers, now returning to Myanmar.

Reports emerged at the weekend that the Rohingya man, stuck in a largely Buddhist country where he does not speak the language, was desperately homesick for his own people. This is despite Australia having millions spent on accommodation and health care that he will most certainly not get if he returns to Myanmar.

Crikey has learned that, quite surprisingly, the Myanmar government is prepared to issue him with papers to have him back, despite actively discriminating against the Rohingya, who are widely denied citizenship and basic rights.

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The Australian government has done everything in its power to wash its hands of the refugees languishing in Nauru and Manus Island, dodging its international obligations. But now, surely, the Australian government must ensure he is not mistreated by Myanmar’s repressive regime.

Indeed, in recent weeks, the quasi-civilian government has signed into law a number of repressive pieces of legislation on interfaith marriage and religious conversion that are aimed squarely at the Rohingya and other Muslims in the country at the behest of radical Buddhist groups who fomented the violence that led to the refugee exodus from Rakhine state in the first place. Things for the Rohingya are getting worse in Myanmar yet, somehow, it’s not as bad as being stuck in Cambodia in a swanky villa under 24-hour guard.

Still, it remains unclear whether this is the end of the Abbott government’s odious Cambodian solution — sending desperate people to one of south-east Asia’s poorest nations, a place where there are so few jobs that 1 million or so Cambodians forsake their families to work in Thailand and other countries in order to repatriate funds. A place where Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the country as a dictator for the past 29 years and whose human rights record is one of the worst in a region where the bar ain’t so high.

Last week, reports emerged that as senior official from Cambodia’s Interior Ministry said the country would not take any more refugees from Manus. But Crikey understands the Cambodian Foreign Ministry remains willing. The big problem is that Australian Immigration officials, blowing thousands of dollars for each trip back and forth, have been unable to convince any more refugees to go to Cambodia.

The scheme is a rolled-gold, diamond-encrusted dog: even if a handful more go it will have been an enormous waste of money, and each refugee, like the lone Rohingya, remains a potential source of embarrassment. None of the original four, sources on the ground in Cambodia say, had any intent of staying long term; rather they were using Cambodia, as most refugees who go there do, as a jumping-off point for resettlement in a First World country like Canada or the United States.

Not to mention that it’s an inhumane and utterly stupid solution.

As Abbott now says, the government does want to really help refugees (from Syria, not Myanmar, but we will get to that) as it wilts under both international, internal party and domestic political pressure, $50 million-plus goes a very, very long way. (It is also more than the aid budget that was ruthlessly cut from Myanmar when the government cranked back Australia’s aid as part of its flawed budget-salvaging exercise.)

The fate of one lonely Rohingya also begs the question of what Australia might be doing to help other Rohingya who were at the centre of the regional refugee crisis that gripped south-east Asia in May, which has been branded as the worst since the end of the Vietnam War.

Abbott now says Australia will take refugees from Syria but has maintained a stony silence on the regional refugee crisis, despite ticking the necessary boxes by taking part in the emergency regional summit in Bangkok in June.

Aid and refugee groups now estimate that about 150,000 people have fled northern Myanmar and Bangladesh in the past three years in rickety boats. Many have fallen into the hands of human traffickers, with the rest being exploited by people smugglers. Untold numbers have died at sea and in makeshift camps on islands off Thailand’s Andaman coast and more permanent facilities in the jungle on the Thailand/Malaysia border. Hundreds of gruesome graves have been discovered.

We have moved on, off course, as we do these days. In Malaysia, the country’s Prime Minister has taken over the headlines as he has closed down media outlets and sacked internal party critics, including his deputy and the chief lawmaker, who was investigating  an astounding US$700 million in alleged illegal funds held in the PM’s accounts (he has since been cleared by Malaysia’s own anti-corruption watchdog). In Thailand, the August 17 bomb blast that killed 20 people and injured 100 and the country’s own ongoing political crisis has provided cover. And it’s the wet season, so the boats stop sailing at this time of year.

Most of the Bangladeshis were taken in by Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, but the problem has not just disappeared — far form it. As the end of the Indian monsoon and south-east Asian wet season approaches its end next month, the people who make so much money from trading human cargoes will be ramping up business again. Certainly some efforts have been made in Thailand and Malaysia, although the depth of the involvement of Thai security forces appears to have been largely ignored.

Only the surface of this enormous problem has been scratched, and the biggest roadblock to a more permanent solution to the issue — meaning the Myanmar government’s appalling treatment of about 1 million people inside its borders, most of whom are denied citizenship and many basic rights — is getting worse, not better.

On August 28 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a detailed report on the crisis and it warned of a repeat.

“The boat movements have temporarily stopped due to the monsoon rains, which have caused severe flooding in many areas across Myanmar. However, the maritime departures are expected to resume once the weather improves in the coming weeks,” the UNHCR said.

“UNHCR is urging governments to avert another crisis at sea by acting now on proposals made to affected States in the context of the Bangkok Special Meeting in May.”

Right now thousands of Rohingya have been left languishing in camps in Malaysia and Thailand. They should be included in Australia’s calculus when the country finally decides to show a bit of the old-fashioned heart that made the place great and takes in more desperate people who deserve our help.

Charity should at least begin closer to home.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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