Urgent Need for Leadership on the Rohingya Crisis


By Claire Rogers,  CEO 

JUBAIDA is one of a million refugees in Cox’s Bazar. When she thinks back six months, her memories of playing marbles with friends rest oddly with torture, death and the burning home her family fled.  

She is 11. Jubaida, her parents, sister and three little brothers trekked for eight days and nights through jungle to reach safety in Bangladesh. They can’t go back. Few have attempted the journey back through no man’s land and the fate of those who have, remains unknown. But staying has its own risks. 

When I spoke to Jubaida two weeks ago as she sat crouched between the plastic walls of her family’s 2m by 4m hut, this is what ‘safety’ looked like: putrid open drains snaking past homes of flimsy plastic; safe water wells are few, and very far between; widowed mothers scared to leave their homes to pick up aid packets because people-traffickers might steal their children in their absence. 

It will get much worse in the most overcrowded refugee camp on the planet – more than twice the population of Canberra in an area the size of beachside Victorian town Sorrento; monsoon season is just around the corner but even now, governments around the world are failing to actively seek an urgent solution to this direst of refugee crises. 

Three quarters of the Rohingyan refugee population have arrived in Cox Bazaar since August last year. They and the longer-term refugees from earlier exoduses are eyeballing the monsoon season, which starts late March and continues to early October.  

What is a humanitarian crisis now will become an unthinkable yet inexorable tragedy as the makeshift camp conditions are mixed with the strong winds and heavy downpours of the season. Many people will die, some will drown others will perish from a lack of shelter or exposure to diseases from overflowing latrines as hundreds of small hills full of shelters slip and bury families below. The bodies of the already dead, buried shallow and not far from the living, will be exposed in the heavy rain.  

If there is no change, there is no way to avoid this living hell. The crisis is complex and solutions need to be multi-layered but international governments can act. They can find ways to support Bangladesh, find solutions to this crisis so that the suffering and deaths of more Rohingyans can be averted. 

This weekend, ASEAN - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meets in Australia in a Special Summit. More than any other time, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has the chance to show leadership in finding a solution to the most pressing of imminent disasters in our region. 

On Wednesday, he wrote: “Overwhelmingly it is a meeting about prosperity and security. In less than one generation, millions of people across the Indo-Pacific region have been lifted out of dire poverty.” 

 “We are indispensable strategic partners and work together to keep our region secure … we are working constructively with our closest neighbours to secure our collective prosperity and security” 

This growing influence of Australia in the region should be harnessed to draw support for a solution to the Rohingyan refugees caught without protection or a home. 

There needs to be a regional solution, but taking the lead is where Mr Turnbull can turn his words into action that matters. If Australia wants to be taken seriously by partners in ASEAN, we must step up during bad times as well as good. 

At the Special Summit, Mr Turnbull must insist on a united approach to engaging politically with the Government of Myanmar to bring an end to the underlying causes of displacement and humanitarian access to Rakhine state.   

While Bangladesh is not an ASEAN member, this does not mean its members shouldn’t urgently seek ways to support Bangladesh to increase help for this displaced population. It should be a major part of the agenda at the upcoming summit. 

In a gesture of regional responsibility sharing, ASEAN countries and its partners including Australia could offer to accept a special emergency intake of Rohingyan refugees in return for Bangladesh facilitating an urgent improvement in camp conditions. 

Organisations like World Vision are reaching thousands of families in the camps by distributing food, shelter items, providing safe spaces for children and women. But so much of our future work hinges on greater support from governments. 

I met another woman in Cox Bazaar last week. Minara wept as she told me how she had to leave behind the body of her 13-year-old son, Hossenjohar, after he was shot in the stomach as the family escaped last August. She couldn’t pay for a funeral to bury him. The money had to be saved to help her three remaining children flee to Bangladesh. It broke her heart. 

Women are suffering depression and mental health issues from the horrors they have witnessed. They are unable to rise up and change their circumstances. This is devastating for the next generation of leaders.  

Jubaida is an outstanding child leader who wants to be a teacher, inspiring her peers and those following her. But this is out of her reach because of where she is. 

There are a million stories like Minara’s and Jubaida’s, a million lives on hold, men, women and children, caught between two worlds, languishing in misery. We need to use our influence to give them a chance to reconstruct their lives. But first we need to save those lives. This need is urgent.  


Picture: World Vision Australia Chief Executive Claire Rogers visited the refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. She spoke to families torn apart by conflict and displaced to now face an uncertain future.


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