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The Violence In Myanmar Yet Again Highlights The Inability Of The International Community To Address Conflict

19/09/2017 17:31
Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

The shocking escalation of violence of the Myanmar army directed at the Rohingya population in that country yet again highlights an inability of the international community to prevent and address repression and conflict.

More than 400,000 people have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in barely three weeks. The Rohingya have suffered systematic discrimination in Myanmar for decades. Now the army is targeting their homes and villages, burning them to the ground.

One year ago, Theresa May addressed the UN General Assembly promising continued UK commitment to international law and urging a "bold new multilateralism" should be forged. The need for a "truly global response" to the plight of people forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution was one of the key factors she highlighted.

Since that speech, the wars and oppressive regimes that force millions of people to flee have not abated. Many have got worse. That at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border is currently the fastest growing refugee crisis.

Before August, the still-growing emergency at the South Sudan-Ugandan border held that dismal distinction. And from Yemen to Sub-Saharan Africa, conflicts have continued to rage and the threats to the women, men and children forced from their homes are now compounded by drought and famine.

So the world's refugee population has grown. The root causes that political leaders, including the British Prime Minister, have long claimed to be addressing have got worse. The realisation of a collective international effort to take and share responsibility for those forcibly displaced becomes an ever more distant prospect.

However, Theresa May really cannot be surprised. In the same speech to the UN, in which she had called for a global and multilateral response, she emphatically reiterated a wholly inconsistent position - an approach she summarised by the phrase 'first safe country'.

Ironically - given the Prime Minister claimed to be calling for something new - this approach has effectively been the international community's response to refugees for decades. It is why poorer and less stable countries neighbouring conflict situations have long been hosting by far the larger proportion of the world's refugees.

Simply doubling down on a long-failed international response in an embarrassingly transparent bid to shield the world's richer nations from taking serious responsibility for hosting refugees is only exacerbating the situation.

Compare, for example, Bangladesh in 2017 to Austria in 1956. Nearly, 60 years ago, in the wake of the Soviet crackdown following the uprising in Hungary, around 200,000 people fled to Austria. Within months, plans were well underway to resettle these people in countries right across the world - 20,000 of them came to the UK.

It would be wrong to assume that a similar resettlement of Rohingya arriving in Bangladesh would be appropriate or welcome for these refugees. Yet, the longer the onus of hosting them is left to Bangladesh, the greater the risk that Bangladesh's willingness to continue to host will fade.

That risk will only increase while richer countries further away make ever more explicit their unwillingness to provide asylum to people forced to flee persecution - something Theresa May has done before, during and after her UN General Assembly speech.

Over the last couple of years, the response of Syria's neighbours to its refugees and that of Afghanistan's neighbours to refugees from that country, are but two examples of precisely this - so-called 'first safe countries' refusing to provide asylum to people entitled to it and forcing people back to danger.

If countries like the UK and its European neighbours truly value both international law and the disproportionate efforts being made by countries closer to conflict in providing asylum, they must end their enmity in both rhetoric and policy to people seeking and receiving asylum at and within their borders too.

Otherwise, their current approach will be further exposed for what it is - rank not-in-my-back-yard-ism. And it will only ensure that for increasing numbers of people, so-called 'first safe countries' become ever less safe.

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