View From Australia: If We Take In South Africans, We Can’t Ignore The Rohingya

We haven’t heard Peter Dutton talk about fast-tracking refugees from Myanmar.
Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Australian home affairs minister Peter Dutton wants to give "special attention" to white South African farmers for possible fast-tracked humanitarian visas. The minister made the comments in interviews with the Daily Telegraph and 2GB radio, after reports that many have been harassed, assaulted, raped and killed in recent times following the government's controversial scheme permitting the repossession and redistribution of farming land from white owners to black South Africans without compensation. Some crime statistics claim more than 400 white farmers were attacked last year, and that with one or two were killed every week.

Shocking reports from South Africa have shown farmers beaten, tortured and raped. The photos and stories are enough to make your stomach churn. Clearly, there is an issue in South Africa, and if these people are found to genuinely require help, then Australia should help. But as we contemplate throwing open the floodgates to a group reportedly being targeted for violence, perhaps we should consider such an expedited assistance programme for other marginal groups also subject to horrific violence.

Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, perhaps?

Dutton, egged on by recent columns in the Daily Telegraph, talked of the "horrific circumstance [white farmers] face" in South Africa. That headline figure of one murder a week (despite being disputed by one of South Africa's leading authorities on crime statistics, who says no evidence exists to back up claims that white farmers were being targeted more than any other group) does sound shocking.

Let's look at Myanmar, then. In Myanmar, the United Nations says government and army persecution of the Rohingya minority is "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing". Up to 800,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in recent months, in the face of what the U.N. called a "frenzied scale of unspeakable violence". The U.N. says the prospect of Rohingya people returning to Myanmar is "impossible under current conditions". Médecins Sans Frontières claims 6,700 Rohingya were killed last August alone, the first month of the latest crackdown on the minority group, and as of December, an estimated 10,000 had been killed.

Doing the simple maths, 6,700 in one month in Myanmar is a lot more than one a week in South Africa. Yet we haven't heard Peter Dutton talk about fast-tracking refugee applications for Rohingya Muslims, as he has done for South African farmers. In fact, quite the opposite – basically zero comment on the issue.

Refugee advocates hold signs as they protest against the detention of asylum seekers being held at Australian-run offshore detention centers located on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, and the South-Pacific island of Nauru, in central Sydney, Australia, August 31, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray
Refugee advocates hold signs as they protest against the detention of asylum seekers being held at Australian-run offshore detention centers located on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, and the South-Pacific island of Nauru, in central Sydney, Australia, August 31, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray
David Gray / Reuters

To be absolutely crystal clear here: I am not, for one moment, aiming to diminish the issues facing South African farmers. Stories like this one published in the Daily Telegraph made me feel quite ill, as a farming family tells the harrowing tale of how the husband was beaten with an iron bar, the wife sexually assaulted, and both burned with a hot clothes iron.

"Holes drilled through the feet of elderly women. People burned alive. Women raped and bashed. Men shot dead in front of their wives and children," the Tele story continues, detailing other atrocities committed against farmers. If these people are found to require international humanitarian assistance, then Australia should be assisting people in such violent situations wherever they exist.

But look. Let's leave aside that South Africa's foreign ministry has angrily denied the trend is a widespread problem, saying "that threat does not exist", and that the government expressed "regret that the Australian government chose not to use the available diplomatic channels available for them to raise concerns or to seek clarification."

If the government decides these South African farmers are in genuine need of help, which may include refugee visas or similar, or they are found to be genuine refugees by an international agency, then Australia should help. But if we decide that South Africans deserve a "fast track" visa, then Australians should be — and already are — asking questions about why there was no such fast lane for Rohingya Muslims who are literally being massacred, their villages burnt and bulldozed, their women abducted and raped.

Let's also leave aside that white South Africans are hardly near the top of the list of most at-risk groups, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (topping that list would be Rohingya and Syrians).

The point here must be that if Australia is going to be the white knight of the world and give special consideration for fast-tracking refugee applications for persecuted minorities overseas, such a programme needs to be applied consistently. I, along with probably many Aussies, would support us taking in South Africans if it is found that such a move is necessary — but at the same time, it would be galling and shameful for us to deny the same express-speed help for Rohingya people, or Syrians, or other groups who have found themselves in peril in recent times.

Let's also not forget that we have scores of legitimate, actual, real-life, flesh-and-bone refugees on Nauru and Manus who have been waiting desperately for some decent resettlement outcome for many years now. If you want to criticise these refugees for being "queue jumpers", as some in this government have done, you'd have to admit they've well and truly been waiting in the queue for long enough.

If Australia is going to offer expedited processing for persecuted people on compassionate grounds, I would back that 110 percent. It is the sort of thing Australia should be doing; helping who we can, when we can.

But this cannot become a de facto White Australia policy, where we jump at one murder a week of white farmers in South Africa but turn a blind eye to more than 10,000 people being systematically killed in a government-backed ethnic cleansing operation in Myanmar. That cannot stand. It simply must not be allowed to happen in Australia in 2018.

I've sent Dutton's office an email asking whether Rohingya people will also be considered for "special attention" for Australian humanitarian programs, now that he has opened the door for such a process for South Africans.

I'll let you know what he says.


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