Tony Abbott getting it wrong on the Roingya
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Tony Abbott getting it wrong on the Roingya

Something is very rotten in the state of Myanmar. By any measure and any definition, a tiny ethnic minority of Myanmar is the subject of genocide. This is not something recent, even if it has been largely ignored by Western governments and media. It has been going on for more than a decade.

Something is also very rotten in the Commonwealth of Australia. Our nation is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Previous Australian governments have cited the convention to provide refugees from across the world, from Bosnia Herzegovina to Vietnam and Cambodia to China to parts of the Middle East. Some have come by boat, others by plane. But since the Keating government introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers, the rot has set in.

Muslim Rohingya in a shelter in Birem Bayuen in Indonesia's Aceh province.

Muslim Rohingya in a shelter in Birem Bayuen in Indonesia's Aceh province.

Photo: AFP

So who are the Rohingya? And why, as Tony Abbott has so eloquently put it, can't they "come through the front door and not through the back door"?

Quite simply, as is the case for most refugees, pretty much all doors are shut. No queues are established for them to stand in a neat line. Other ethnic groups (such as the Karen and Shan) have also been persecuted by Myanmar's military junta, some even taking up arms to protect themselves.

The Rohingya live mainly in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar, a region they have called home for centuries. Though numbering barely one million, they have been stateless since they were collectively stripped of their citizenship in a 1982 citizenship law that recognised 135 ethnic groups. Since then they have been driven out of their homes and forced into virtual concentration camps and small villages where they are deprived of medical care.

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But don't take my word for it. In April 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Myanmar's sort-of civilian government of "crimes against humanity" and "ethnic cleansing". Some 200 people were killed in one incident in which Rakhine Buddhists attacked Rohingyas with state authorities standing back. The report mentioned attacks in some 13 townships. The dead were buried in mass graves.

When they are not being burned alive and raped, ethnic Rohingya are being driven from their homes into enclaves at the mercy of religious chauvinists led by a highly organised Buddhist movement. Just about every respectable human rights body has documented this.

These people are regarded as "Bengalis" by the Myanmar government and hence are denied citizenship despite their ancestors living in the area for centuries. Bangladesh (literally "home of Bengalis") regards the Rohingya as Burmese. Some Rohingya refugees are living in camps in Bangladesh as stateless persons. Unlike Australia, Bangladesh hardly has the resources to permanently settle them.

Conditions in the camps are atrocious. Aid workers from Doctors Without Borders and the UN High Commission for Refugees have been detained by authorities. The camps are squalid and disease-ridden.

Among those at the forefront of anti-Rohingya rage in Myanmar civil society are Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu, who describes himself as the "Burmese bin Laden" and uses the same rhetoric as used by the likes of Fox News presenters and our own Reclaim Australia.

Not even Myanmar's otherwise brave opposition leader Nobel Prize Winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi has much to say in defence of the Rohingya. And neighbouring countries, keen to cash in on Myanmar's liberalised market, are too busy imagining the dollars and rupiah and ringgit.

So the Rohingya have no army and no policy force to protect them. Their sources of humanitarian aid are harassed by local authorities. They are constantly attacked by religious fanatics. There is no queue for these people to jump. No country in the region wants them. Even the governments of allegedly Islamic countries have little pity for them, offering little more than some kind of temporary protection.

They are to today's south-east Asia what European Jews were to Europe during the 1930s and '40s. The numbers were much larger in Europe, and the history of Christian persecution of European Jewry was much longer and more brutal. But the ideology was much the same. Even the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, part of the US Holocaust Museum, warned that the Rohingya were a "population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide". Their fact-finding mission in March found "early warning signs of genocide."

Genocide. In our own backyard.

But Tony Abbott simply refuses to allow any Rohingya to settle here. Nope nope nope. It sounds as tacky as the old Rosella advert. "Not Reffos again". No No No. "Not Mozlems again". No no no.

We're often told that being sympathetic is a leftwing fetish. Those of us (like me) who see ourselves as more right than left (or indeed than wrong) feel we have to be tough on boat people. When pressured to show some compassion, we talk about nasty people smugglers. And it's true that they are nasty.

But as conservative American writer and humourist P.J. O'Rourke says, we are the ones who miss out when we close the door on the desperate. As he told his Q&A audience in 2009:

"You know, my people came over to the United States in a completely disorganised way. Doubtless by way of people smugglers [...] I really believe in immigration ... Let them in. Let them in. These people are assets. [O]ne or two of them might not be, but you can sort them out later ... Oh, I think conservatives are getting this wrong all over the world, I really do."

Tony, you're getting it wrong. Close the doors? Lock the gates? Miss out on good future citizens? Showing less humanity than a country with no hesitation to execute our reformed smugglers? Nope. Nope. Nope. ​

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation
Deakin University