Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Australia vows more aid for Rohingya

By Adam Gartrell

Australia pledged more help for Burma's persecuted Rohingya people on Wednesday as Foreign Minister Stephen Smith pressed for improved treatment of the Muslim minority.

He met bilaterally with Burma's deputy minister for home affairs and police chief, Brigadier General Khin Yee, on the sidelines of the Bali Process meeting on people smuggling and transnational crime.

Mr Smith, who co-chaired the Bali summit, pressed the Burmese representatives on the Rohingya issue.

"Australia put to Myanmar (Burma) all the human rights, democratic and rule of law issues that we have in the past," he told reporters later.

"The response I got from the police chief was along the lines... of the traditional response of Myanmar to not accept the notion of citizenship."

The Rohingyas are denied citizenship in mainly Buddhist Burma and human rights groups say they face repression and poverty.

Thousands have fled the junta-ruled nation to neighbouring Bangladesh, while others have sought safety in other South-East Asian countries.

Their plight gained international attention earlier this year when Thailand's military was accused of towing hundreds of the refugees out to sea in poorly-equipped boats with scant supplies after they fled Burma.

Although the conference failed to agree on concrete solutions to deal with the problem of Rohingya asylum seekers, Mr Smith said the summit helped "focus" affected countries on the problem.

"It's an acute problem and I don't think anyone is under any illusions that this problem can be solved overnight, or in one season," he said.

Mr Smith announced Australia would provide an extra $3.2 million in humanitarian aid to Rohingyas living in Burma's northern Rakhine State, to improve their living conditions and give them better economic opportunities.

"Australia is concerned about the deteriorating living conditions and increasing marginalisation of the Rohingya people in Burma and in refugee camps in Bangladesh," Mr Smith said.

"Their already parlous situation has been exacerbated by poor rice harvests, the rising price of basic food items and enforced restrictions on their movements."

The conference agreed to establish an "ad hoc group" to intervene in regional migration crises and emergencies, at the request of affected countries.

During his opening address to the conference, Mr Smith said the circumstances driving people smuggling had changed and the region had to keep up.

"The current global financial and economic crisis may well also encourage more people to seek economic opportunities outside of their own borders," he said.

Earlier, Mr Smith welcomed news that Indonesia had agreed to extradite accused Afghani people smuggler Amanullah Rezaie who was arrested on Monday.

"I welcome very much the provisional arrest," he said.

"That particular individual is wanted for people-smuggling charges in Australia."
© 2009 AAP

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