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Julie Bishop targets Myanmar over Rohingya crisis

May 22, 2015

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called for greater inter­national pressure on Myanmar to stop the flow of Rohingya ­asylum-seekers, as Tony Abbott ruled out resettling any of the stranded boatpeople in ­Australia.

The humanitarian emergency in Southeast Asia has morphed into a global crisis, but hopes for a swift resolution are dwindling as Indonesia’s military command yesterday contradicted its Foreign Ministry, indicating it would continue to turn back people smuggling ­vessels.

The stance came a day after Indonesia and Malaysia ­offered to provide temporary shelter and relief for about 4000 Rohingyas and Bengali illegal migrants still at sea. Turkey and Indonesia have called for urgent discussions on the crisis in a high-level meeting today with Ms Bishop in Seoul, as regional tensions rise over the fate of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in largely Buddhist Myanmar and Bangladeshis escaping poverty.

But the Prime Minister has sent an uncompromising message to the region, making it clear Australia believed the problem was a regional responsibility.

“The countries that will have to take the bulk of the responsibility are obviously the countries which are closest to the problem,’’ Mr Abbott said. “Now, in the end, the culprit is Myanmar because it is Myanmar where there is an issue.”

Asked if Australia would resettle any Rohingyas, he said: “Nope, nope, nope.”

Australia would not do the “slightest thing” to encourage people to get on boats, Mr ­Abbott said, arguing it would exacerbate the problem. “I’m sorry — if you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door,’’ he said.

More than 3000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of various Southeast Asian countries after Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia adopted Australian-style border protection tactics and began turning back boats. Authorities labelled it “maritime ping-pong” as nations refused to accept the human cargo. Aid groups estimated that thousands more remained stranded at sea, some for more than 40 days with scarce supplies of food and water, after people smugglers abandoned their boats because of a crackdown by authorities.

International Organisation for Migration spokesman Joe Lowry said more than 400 asylum-­seekers who were brought to shore in the Indonesian province of Aceh were in “very, very bad shape’’ including suffering from dehydration, malnourishment and trauma.

Speaking to The Australian in Seoul, Ms Bishop said more needed to be done to pressure Myanmar to help solve the crisis by improving its treatment of the country’s 1.1 million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority.

“I think there needs to be more international pressure including from the west on Myanmar to treat the Rohingyas humanely and allow them to live peacefully in (Myanmar),” she said.

The crisis is certain to be raised today in Seoul when Ms Bishop meets senior Indonesian officials as part of the five-nation MIKTA foreign ministers meeting, comprising Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico.

Indonesia will be represented at ambassador level after the ­Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi cancelled to ­attend a meeting with her Malaysian and Myanmar counterparts about the refugee crisis.

In a minor breakthrough, it has emerged that Myanmar, which was initially reluctant, is now likely to attend the regional meeting in Bangkok on May 29 to address the impasse.

Australia will be represented at the meeting by the ambassador for people-smuggling issues, ­Andrew Goledzinowski.

In Washington, US State ­Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Malaysia and ­Indonesia had requested help ­resettling people and the Obama administration was “taking a careful look at the proposal’’. “It has to be a multi-country effort. We obviously can’t take this all on ourselves. But we are prepared to play a leading role in this effort,’’ Ms Harf said.

The US has resettled more than 1000 Rohingyas since ­October.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said Australia was obliged to help as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

Turkey, which is concerned about large-scale uncontrolled refugee flows from the Middle East, and Indonesia, which has turned back boatloads of ­Rohingyas, have requested discussions on possible regional and global solutions at today’s MIKTA meeting.

“It is certainly a hot around the globe and it will be discussed,” said Beomchul Shin, director general for policy planning with South Korea’s ministry for foreign affairs.

Ms Bishop said: “I have no doubt it will come up in our discussions with Indonesia. Turkey is likely to raise it (and) it is interesting to get a perspective from the Middle East how they see the challenge that’s facing the Middle East and Europe.’’

In Sydney, Bill Shorten said Labor supported regional resettlement but he labelled as “disappointing’’ what he termed “Tony Abbott’s not-my-problem approach’’. “I believe this government should at least engage with our Southeast Asian neighbours but in terms of regional resettlement, Labor remains convinced that is the right way to go,’’ the Opposition Leader said.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale, called for Australia to resettle the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.

Additional reporting: Stefanie Balogh, AFP, AP

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