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'Nope, nope, nope': Tony Abbott says Australia will take no Rohingya refugees

Residents of Langsa, in Aceh province, hand food and money to Rohingya refugees before they are transported by buses and trucks to a camp. Photograph: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

By Shalailah Medhora
May 21, 2015

The prime minister says, ‘To start a new life, come through the front door, not the back door’, and insists Australia is ‘a good international citizen’

None of the more than 8,000 Rohingya refugees caught in a weeks-long standoff at sea will be resettled in Australia, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, confirmed on Thursday.

Overnight the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to give temporary shelter to the thousands of Rohingya Muslim migrants fleeing Burma and Bangladesh. And Gambia has offered to resettle all Rohingya refugees.

Some have been stranded at sea for weeks after Thai authorities closed a well-used trafficking route out of Burma and the people smugglers jumped ship and left their human cargo to starve.

The US has indicated it is willing to take some of the refugees, and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has urged Australia to work with its neighbours in finding a solution.

But the prime minister has closed the door on suggestions some could be resettled in Australia: “Nope, nope, nope.

“Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life.

“I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.

“Don’t think that getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler is going to do you or your family any good.

“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.”

Despite the firm words, Abbott insists Australia “has always been a good international citizen”.

The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said Australia should engage more in the region.

“Labor supports regional resettlement – there is no change in that. We certainly do. But where there is an unfolding humanitarian crisis in south-east Asia, Tony Abbott’s ‘not my problem’ approach is disappointing,” he said.

Australia will be part of regional talks on people trafficking to be held next week, and the UNHCR has urged the country to cooperate with its neighbours.

“We hope Australia will be among countries that work towards there being a collective approach towards dealing with this,” a spokesman, Adrian Evans, told ABC Radio.

“Really, the go-it-alone approach – and we’ve seen what’s been going wrong with that in south-east Asia over the last week – that go-it-alone approach simply doesn’t work.”

The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said “turning a blind eye” is not a solution.

“The asylum seekers, many suffering from starvation, are in desperate need of assistance, and Australia, as a regional leader, has an international responsibility to provide leadership and provide immediate assistance,” she said.

Abbott has pointed the finger of blame at Burma for letting the asylum seekers leave.

“This is quite properly a regional responsibility and the countries that will have to take the bulk of the responsibility are obviously the countries which are closest to the problem. In the end, the culprit is Burma because it is Burma where there is an issue,” Abbott said.

The opposition spokesman on immigration, Richard Marles, said that classification was unhelpful.

“I think that if what comes out of this is that everyone points the finger solely at Myanmar that’s not going to end up with the kind of results the global community would want to see,” he told Sky News.

“There simply has to be a point at which Tony Abbott understands that he is not just a low-rent domestic politician but is the prime minister of Australia. He enters the world stage as a statesman or at least he should and that’s what we need to see and hear from him.”

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