Federation Chamber - PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS - Rohingya People

20 August 2018

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this motion and was very happy to second it. I too visited the Rohingya refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border two weeks ago. Six parliamentarians were guests of Save the Children Australia and, just like this motion states, the delegation saw the positive impact that our international aid has had in response to this remarkable crisis. Australia has contributed around $70 million to the response over the last 12 months and is in the top four contributing countries. This solidarity is on display in so many ways: water pumps, bags of rice and other food items, medical clinics and so much more. We were also able to witness the amazing contributions that our NGOs—Save the Children, Oxfam, and CARE—make in improving the lives and hopes of the Rohingya refugees. It is clear that our aid and solidarity, along with that of other countries, have prevented a humanitarian disaster.

It is now almost exactly 12 months since the first refugees flooded across the border, reporting atrocities at the hands of Myanmar soldiers. What was then a forest refuge complete with wandering elephants is now a medium-sized city of almost one million people. The infrastructure of the camps and the food, health and social programs for over 900,000 people, many of whom are still traumatised by the death of loved ones, are quite remarkable. One of the key lessons I learnt was that it will be crucial to provide men and women with real education and opportunities to earn a livelihood within the camps. Work is dignity, and the Rohingya are a determined and hardworking people, not used to doing nothing. We met young people who had completed or nearly completed high school in Myanmar, whose hopes have now been shattered. They don't even have any books to read, let alone opportunities for further study or employment. Yet they too are helping their brothers and sisters in the brother-sister programs, teaching very young children who can't get into the early learning centres.

The reality is that the vast majority of refugees will be there for the medium to long term. A looming question is: how does development occur that gives the Rohingya hope and opportunity but also deals with the equally pressing needs of the Bangladesh population. To date, the Bangladeshis have been unbelievably generous towards their displaced neighbours. However, you can see that this welcome could start to fray, especially if the Rohingya start taking up local economic and job opportunities that the locals believe should be theirs. Many UN and NGO programs are now delivering around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the funding to host communities to try to compensate for this.

This all plays into what commitment Australia will make in the medium to long term. We are, as I said, amongst the largest donors, with around $70 million over the last 12 months, and this doesn't include aid to Bangladesh itself. We can be proud of that response. However, as a nation we need to lift our aid effort to both the Rohingya camps and to this region of Bangladesh. Funding UN agencies and NGOs to deliver food, water and sanitation is a relatively simple thing to do. But how we might contribute to economic development in the region, thus giving both the Rohingya and the local Bangladeshis opportunities and hope, will require much more complex thinking. That sustained and more complex contribution can and should be made. I remind honourable members that Australia's international aid budget has been the clearest victim of belt-tightening in recent years. Our current aid budget is 0.27 per cent, around 16th on the OECD list of countries. It is shameful that a country like Australia can't find the money to play our role in lifting the living standards and opportunities of our neighbours. Increasing our aid budget is an important step.

It really was an honour to meet with so many brave and resilient Rohingya. I would like to thank the organisations that made it happen, especially Save the Children Australia, who organised the delegation, and note how much I enjoyed the bipartisan approach to the trip. I learnt that Australia is making a huge difference to the lives of a million people in dire need, in an isolated part of our region. I also learnt that we have so much more to do to make this fantastic initial response sustainable. I, for one, will continue to advocate with my colleagues that this government and the next continue to make a strong contribution to the welfare of the Rohingya people and, of course, their Bangladeshi hosts.