Australian Government Humanitarian Assistance for Displaced and Conflict-affected Communities in Bangladesh and Myanmar

7 Dec | '2020


Ms BELL (Moncrieff) (12:51): I move:

That this House notes that:

(1) 25 August 2020 marked three years since over 700,000 Rohingya, including more than 400,000 children, fled from targeted violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, to Bangladesh;

(2) the camps in Bangladesh now host over 850,000 refugees in crowded conditions which is also impacting the lives of over 400,000 local Bangladeshis;

(3) an estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State;

(4) since 2017, the

working through UN agencies, international and national NGOs such as BRAC, Save the Children, CARE, World Vision, Plan International and Oxfam and their local partners to deliver food, shelter, water and sanitation, health and education services, and targeted support for women and girls to help combat risks including gender-based violence and trafficking;

(5) annual monsoons and cyclones have brought additional risks, and the COVID-19 virus has now arrived, with 88 confirmed cases to date in the Cox’s Bazar camps and over 80 active cases in Rakhine State; and

(6) Australia remains committed to supporting Myanmar to create conditions on the ground conducive to voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable returns for all displaced peoples.

I rise to speak about our region’s single biggest humanitarian crisis and the plight of the Rohingya people. In January this year I took my first official trip abroad as an MP on a parliamentary delegation to Bangladesh, hosted by Save the Children and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I was accompanied by Liberal senator Wendy Askew, Senator Kristina Keneally, the member for Cowan and the member for Fremantle to witness firsthand how our Australian aid benefits approximately 850,000 Rohingya refugees and the surrounding Bangladeshi host communities of 400,000 locals at Cox’s Bazar.

I thank the honourable members and senators for this trip and for the opportunity to get to know them through the lens of compassion, bipartisanship and Australian foreign aid programs. I also thank the team from Save the Children for their dedication, not only for the complex arrangements for the parliamentary delegation but most importantly for their work supporting populations like the Rohingya and others around the world who find themselves in the very difficult circumstances born from conflict. Thank you to High Commissioner Jeremy Brewer, whom we accompanied on his first trip to Cox’s Bazar to see the problems that the Australian Embassy in Dhaka works with on a daily basis—a large-scale humanitarian crisis that is now greatly exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic that all countries around the world face.

Myanmar has more than one-third of its population living in extreme poverty. It’s one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia. Human rights violations were targeted at the Rohingya in Rakhine State in August 2017 by the military in Myanmar. Families, women and children were forced to flee on foot across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh to the coastal region of Cox’s Bazar. Today there are an estimated 850,000 Rohingya refugees and 400,000 surrounding communities severely impacted by over 30 growing megacamps that now exist. These camps span as far as the eye can see. They have impacted Bangladeshis and an area that was once pristine elephant habitat. Australian aid agencies, including BRAC, deliver all manner of programs to these dreadfully disadvantaged peoples. The Australian government provides basic healthcare and vaccinations. We provide basic sanitation. We build toilets and shower blocks. We provide funding for primary education, for food vouchers and for counselling and medical services for those who have experienced violence, including women and girls. As part of our arrangement, Australians support the local host communities and health and education outcomes for Bangladeshis, and those members present will remember visits to a preschool, a school for those with a disability and a high school, where Australians provide local families and their children with hope and with opportunities.

Along with other countries such as the UK, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Australia has contributed over $260 million to this crisis since 2017, and the foreign minister continues to work with the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments to seek a way forward. Australia is spending foreign aid wisely, and it was on display every day of our trip as we were able to meet largely with women and children in the slums, in the camps and in safe places created by our government to protect the some 80 per cent of the camp population who are women and children from gender based violence.

On our first day, we visited the slumps of Dhaka. The conditions the members saw that day as we walked through the mud, mosquitoes, dense population and unsanitary environment were confronting, to say the least. I felt overwhelming empathy for those in Dhaka, but I felt proud to call myself and Australian who is assisting through my taxes and other donations the most vulnerable of the Bangladeshi population and, indeed, the Rohingya. We visited one woman who, through the BRAC program, was able to support her daughter to the age of 18 and thus avoiding her own daughter’s child marriage at 12 as she herself was forced to do. The program not only assisted her family but created a surrounding micro-economy for her community. She graduated from ultrapoor status to poor status.

The situations in the camps at Cox’s Bazar remains in crisis, and each year, with monsoon season, this population faces compounding difficulties that are unimaginable for most, if not all, Australians. I wish I could end my speech today with a proposed solution to this crisis, but I don’t have the answers except to say that conditions for repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar must be safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable.

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