Refugee to rights lawyer: Why we should help the Rohingya

It was at the end of October 1978 when my parents made the brave but extremely difficult decision to abandon their home country of Vietnam following the end of the war. My grandmother, while not wanting her daughter to leave, had to sacrifice her only living family member so that she could find freedom from communism. My grandmother had moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam 24 years earlier in order to escape persecution from the Communists but by 1978 they were ubiquitous in North, Central and South Vietnam.

My parents crammed themselves in a 15-meter long fishing boat along with 600 other people. Men were herded into the pit with only a small door for food and water to be passed through while women and children were seated on the top floor.

I recall my mother telling me how confused and frightened she was, but she had no choice. My parents were desperate to flee but at the same time they were saddened to abandon their home country - where they spent their childhood, where they met and where they fell in love. But they knew they had to leave.

Their leaky boat set sail through torrential rains and turbulent winds for the next 4 days and 3 nights before arriving in Malaysia and being transferred to Kota Bharu camp. Six months later, with my 5-month old brother in tow, they were resettled in Australia. Even though my parents had no identity documents and arrived on a boat, they were not pushed away. They were not described as "illegals" but were accepted as genuine refugees under the Fraser Government in Australia.  

Nations stating the Rohingya is not their problem are violating international law, especially if they are signatories to the United Nations Refugee Convention. Those who are not signatories, however, still have a legal obligation under customary international law to prevent the return of people at risk of serious rights abuses. Saying “no” to asylum seekers does nothing to address the dangers, which force people to flee and demeans the power of international law.

As long as persecution continues, people will continue to seek asylum. The real crisis is not people smuggling or human trafficking. What we actually have now is a humanitarian crisis, and as various nations continue to violate their international obligations or refuse to co-operate for domestic political gains, more will continue to die at sea.

Root cause

Of course, the root problem is state sanctioned persecution and discrimination in Burma. The Rohingya is a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group in Burma who are not afforded any basic rights or citizenship status. This needs to be addressed in order to control the Rohingya from leaving, although this is a long-term strategy.

The short-term strategy is for nations to step up and provide humanitarian aid and temporary refuge to the Rohingya asylum seekers while their cases are being processed. Much like what the Philippines did when thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived their shores in the 1970s in areas such as Bataan and Palawan, and very much like what Malaysia did when my parents ventured on their harrowing and long journey to a better life before being granted asylum in Australia.

As I write this article, I question where my parents would be today if they were not resettled. Where would I be today if my parents’ boat had been pushed back to the nation that persecuted them? Where would many former Vietnamese asylum seekers be if sovereignty was the main priority?

Human lives should not be dependent on political motives but on humanity. It is time for nations to realize this. –

Anna Nguyen is an Australian born human rights lawyer. She is now based in Manila, Philippines, and is the Legal Counsel for VOICE, a non-profit organization that helps develop civil society in Vietnam and resettle stateless Vietnamese asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection. Contact here here.

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