Refugee to rights lawyer: Why we should help the Rohingya

Anna Nguyen
Refugee to rights lawyer: Why we should help the Rohingya
'What we actually have now is a humanitarian crisis, and as various nations continue to violate their international obligations, more will continue to die at sea'

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.  

At first, life was difficult for my parents. They were visible foreigners in a country where they knew no one, not even the language. But they were safe and free from persecution, and with the help of the Australian community, they managed to establish a new life.

In 1980 my mother gave birth to another son and I arrived in 1988. My parents are thankful everyday that the Australian government gave them another chance at life. I am also grateful for them and the sacrifices that my parents made. If it weren’t for them, I would not have had the chance to study law.

I’m now a human rights lawyer, helping asylum seekers, the same group of people who were in my parents’ situation almost 37 years ago.

Closed world

The recent plight of Rohingya asylum seekers seems too familiar to the exodus of over one million Vietnamese asylum seekers who fled their home to neighboring countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, following the end of the Vietnam War. Over 8,000 Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma and Bangladesh, fleeing from persecution, are stranded in boats off the coasts of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and are at risk of dying. (READ: Rohingya boat people: Silence not the answer

In contrast to 30 years ago, instead of a world that accepts refugees and abides by their international obligations, they are now faced with an increasingly xenophobic and fearful world. Nations, who are signatories to the United Nations Refugee Convention, are required by international law to assess asylum seekers but instead they are “turning back the boats” and refusing to resettle any “boat people” – fearful that accepting them will open the floodgate and believing that this method will combat human trafficking.

Europeans are pushing back boats to the civil and political turmoil of Libya, the Australian government are towing back boats to Indonesian waters, Malaysia is stating “the Rohingya is not our problem” while the Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, is chanting “Nope, nope, nope” when asked whether Australia will resettle the Rohingya. (READ: FAST FACTS: Who are the Rohingya?)

Blind eye

The consequences of these actions are finally coming into fruition at the cost of the most persecuted ethnic group in the world. The fact that the United Nations has given the Rohingya this description does not seem to strike a cord with some nations.

Although just recently, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have agreed to provide humanitarian aid and temporary refuge, while the U.S as well as Gambia have agreed to consider requests to resettle the Rohingya, some nations are still turning a blind eye using words such as “people smuggling” or “human trafficking” to defend their actions.

ASYLUM SEEKERS. Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants are seen in a truck as they arrive at a naval base before being transferred to Kuala Kedah jetty with the navy ship 'KD Mahawangsa', in Langkawi, Malaysia. Photo by: EPA/Fazry Ismail

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.

How would you like ASEAN leaders to address this migrant and humanitarian crisis?

Post your messages addressed to the ASEAN leaders on Facebook andTwitter using the hashtag #HelpRohingya. Don’t forget to make your posts public. MovePH, Rappler’s civic engagement arm will be featuring select messages on a page.

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