Australia is resisting calls of the UN bodies to hold high-level emergency talks under the Bali Process mechanism to avert a humanitarian crisis involving Rohingya people of Myanmar who are stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the adjacent Andaman Sea.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees urged Australia and Indonesia, the co-chairs of an anti-people-smuggling forum known as the Bali Process, to activate high-level discussions between members to avoid a repeat of a 2015 disaster in which hundreds of asylum seekers died in the Andaman Sea.
Rebecca Miller, the regional coordinator for the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes, said that Australia and Indonesia needed to trigger the consultation mechanism in an attempt to facilitate a regional resolution of the crisis, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“The Bali Process was silent during the Andaman Sea crisis in 2015 and was criticised for its inaction,” she said, adding, “Two years on, in response to a sudden displacement from Myanmar to Bangladesh, it acted – and the Bali Process needs to act again.”
A Bangladesh diplomat told New Age that they were expecting that the Australian and Indonesian governments would take a lead to discuss the matter under the Bali Process.
Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims — originally from Myanmar — have been stranded for weeks at sea in up to four boats somewhere between Bangladesh and Malaysia.
The UNHCR and humanitarian groups fear that the disaster could be repeated if urgent search and rescue operations are not conducted in the coming days to locate the missing boats.
Catherine Stubberfield, UNHCR regional spokesperson for Asia and the Pacific, said, ‘Beyond the technical collaboration already established under the Bali Process, the consultative mechanism is critical for convening high-level dialogue to urgently save lives.’
Senior officials in the Australian and Indonesian foreign affairs departments were locked in discussions in recent days, according to a SMH report.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne was briefed by her department on the latest crisis, while several Liberal members of the Australian parliament have raised the matter with the government.
Australia is, officially, maintaining that the Bali Process is a forum for policy dialogue and information sharing, and shouldn’t be used to trigger an emergency operational response to a refugee crisis.
Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister, however, said that the crisis could fall within the scope of the emergency consultation mechanism.
The boats carrying Rohingya refugees are believed to have left Bangladesh last month in an attempt to reach Malaysia but were turned away from other countries in the region.
An Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said that Australia was closely monitoring the situation and was supporting Bangladesh in responding to impacts of the coronavirus in its refugee camps.
Bangladesh’s refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are home to more than a million Rohingyas who have fled violence and government crackdowns in Myanmar in recent years.
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