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A Potential Mass Migration Nightmare On Our Doorstep

It's a false assumption that Australia has passed the worst phase of its refugee challenge.

01/11/2016 5:36 AM AEDT | Updated 01/11/2016 5:36 AM AEDT
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Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
Rohingya Muslim men stand at U Shey Kya village outside Maugndaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar October 27, 2016.

There are more than a few advocates who would describe Australia's detention of refugees on Manus and Nauru as the ultimate migration horror story. And now Australia's government would have you believe that its proposed lifetime 'ban' for boat arrivals may spell impending doom for the region's would-be people smugglers.

While both these issues are alarming, neither are as alarming as the impacts of Australia's next potential migration horror story, which is likely to involve a sudden flood of refugees -- most likely Rohingyas from Myanmar -- of such magnitude that it would overwhelm the Asia-Pacific region's border security capabilities.

This story starts with a false assumption that Australia has now passed the worst phase of its refugee challenge.

The border security situation in South East Asia has been relatively stable since waves of refugees escaped Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and '80s. Over the past 25 years, Australia's geographic isolation from the Middle East, Africa and South America has spared it from mass migration crises like those being experienced in Europe and North America.

The military led border security operation, Operation Sovereign Borders, has been overwhelmingly successful in its efforts to combat people smugglers and protect the sovereignty of Australia's borders. Australia's northern maritime wall of steel is now firmly in place and those desperate enough to test Australia's resolve are being turned around.

The Australian government is of course worried about the presence of 14,000 refugees in Indonesia. However, this number might be dwarfed by the number of potential Rohingya refugees, given some of the recent developments in Myanmar.

The Rohingyas are the indigenous Muslim people of Myanmar's Rakhine state. This group are often described by media and human rights organisations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

In early 2015, almost 25,000 Rohingyas took to boats to escape persecution from Myanmar's Buddhist government. This mass migration flow caused a crisis across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Fast-forward to the present, and the situation for the Rohingyas is once more in a state of rapid and deadly decline. The Myanmar government alleges that on the 9th of October a Rohingya insurgent group launched coordinated ground assaults against several border guard post: killing nine police offices and five soldiers.

Since the attacks, the Myanmar government has deployed large numbers of police and military forces to its Rakhine district. It is alleged by international advocates that these government forces have shot scores of people, raped women, burnt houses and stores, and looted property across the Rakhine state. These attacks have universally targeted the Rohingya minority.

The 2015 Rohingya crisis demonstrated how upsurges in persecution can lead to sudden and large scale migration flows. The events of the past few weeks have been described by some observers as the biggest surge in violence against the Rohingya for at least four years. With an estimated population of 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar, the potential for a mass migration crises in the region is clear.

These recent developments should serve as a warning to Australia's government. The conditions are ripe for sparking a mass migration crises that could see tens of thousands of people displaced across the region. A number which would likely overwhelm Sovereign Borders' current capabilities.

From late 2014, European nations were receiving similar warnings of the possibility of a mass migration crisis involving Syrian refugees. At the time both the European Union, and many of its individual member states, failed to heed the warnings: and were ill prepared for the mass migration crisis that followed. The Europeans quickly learnt that in the face of mass irregular migration, border security measures quickly fail.

With Sovereign Borders' current success there is a strong temptation to believe that Australia's maritime borders are permanently impenetrable. Some might even argue that with long-term success Sovereign Borders could be wound back, or at least its budget reduced. Unfortunately, Australia's current commitment to Sovereign Borders is likely to remain the norm for a long time to come.

Regardless, the Europe's 2015/2016 migration crisis clearly demonstrates that on its own a maritime blockade is not enough to stop a mass migration of desperate people. This is why now is the time for the Australian government to double down on its efforts to disrupt future calamities: especially in Myanmar.

Australia needs to enhance its bilateral and multilateral strategies to address the persecution of the Rohingyas. It must also seek to support the development of border security skills of those refugee transit countries surrounding Myanmar.

Unfortunately, this story of a mass migration crisis isn't a piece of fiction: but a warning. There is real potential that if the impacts of developments in Myanmar are not mitigated, crisis will follow.

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