'I think it's wrong to repatriate people back to violence.' ABC PM Radio Interview, Thursday 25 January.



SUBJECTS:  UNICEF visit to Rohingya refugee settlements in Bangladesh.

 LINDA MOTTRAM: The same government of which Aung San Suu Kyi is nominally a part, has accused Bangladesh of stalling on the agreement to begin repatriating some Rohingya refugees. And now two Australian federal politicians who are visiting the refugee camps in Bangladesh say they're very doubtful the current deal will ever come to fruition. Labor Senator for Tasmania - Lisa Singh, and Nationals MP for Mallee in Victoria - Andrew Broad, are travelling as members of the Parliamentary Friends of UNICEF group to see the camps at Cox's Bazar first-hand. I spoke to both of them from Bangladesh on poor phone lines so I've re-voiced some comments for clarity. I began by asking Lisa Singh whether she thought the repatriation agreement would become a reality?

 LISA SINGH, LABOR SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: I don't. I think it's far off from that at the moment. And I think it's wrong to repatriate people back to violence.

 MOTTRAM: Lisa Singh is saying that what's needed is an end to blocking humanitarian access to Rakhine State. She says people want to return there but they can't be expected to do that given their fear of violence which is part of a cycle of violence over time. People would need guarantees, she says, of safety and dignity first. Here are Andrew Broad's thoughts.

 ANDREW BROAD MP, MEMBER FOR MALLEE: I think it's natural to say that people want to go home, but they only want to go home if it's safe. And so I have to say that repatriation is aspirational. The Bangladesh government has been very accommodating with our aid organisations which are trying to deal with the crisis. They say this is a Myanmar problem. They want to send them back and Myanmar is making noises that they will take them back, but considering that they've used acts of terror to cause these people to flee so they can get their ground and their land - I'm a little bit skeptical to be honest Linda.

 MOTTRAM: So as these two Australian politicians have visited the massive camps at Cox's Bazar, specifically focused on children, what stories shave they heard? Here's Lisa Singh

SINGH: It's a tragedy beyond belief. Yesterday we saw refugee camps sprawled out further than my eyes could see.

MOTTRAM: The sheer scale of the camps is confronting, she says, but the sheer numbers of refugees is absolutely heart-breaking. 

SINGH: More than half of all of the refugees that have arrived in the camps since August are children.

MOTTRAM: And Lisa Singh says UNICEF is now reporting that a number have contracted diphtheria. The water situation is not safe.

SINGH: Little children I saw yesterday - this little girl I saw had her baby brother on hip and the water pitcher on her other hip walking to the nearby water pump to get some clean drinking water. 

MOTTRAM: Lisa Singh is saying their that some young girls are caring for their younger siblings as the head of families after the brutalisation and murder of other family members in Myanmar. And she warns that that scenario harbours future grim prospects for already traumatised people. Her Nationals colleague Andrew Broad reflects on what he's been hearing in the camps.

BROAD: The children, when they draw pictures of trees, are drawing bodies in the trees. Stories of women being raped and then watching their husbands being hung. You don't move nearly 600-700,000 people-...they don't move for no reason. They moved because they were fleeing what is, I think, crimes against humanity. 

MOTTRAM: And, of course, the monsoon is approaching, and that brings with it a whole lot of new risks and threats doesn't it? What do you understand about what's facing the camps when the monsoon arrives?

BROAD: I've gotta say Linda, the farmer in me rather than the politician in me was looking at this -where pipeline systems are and how drainage works and those sort of things. It is quite hilly terrain, so they think it'll have to be at least 80,000 people moved. They're doing some work around what is the gradient of slopes and where some mudslides could happen. So if it's raining, they've got problems. If they've got wind and tornado-type conditions - which can hit, - then you've essentially got a completely flat refugee camp and that would be a disaster. So it's a real concern and people are trying to get their head around what do you do?

SINGH: That is a massive concern. I really fear what's going to happen come the monsoon. It's a huge concern of UNICEF's, who have talked about some 80,000 people that will need to be moved before the monsoon starts, otherwise their homes will simply be washed away. 

MOTTRAM: What Lisa Singh is confirming there is that, come the monsoon, the prospects for the camps - makeshift, flimsy and on vulnerable ground...- well, it's sobering to contemplate. UNICEF, with whom Lisa Singh and Andrew Broad are travelling, are doing what they can, but resources are limited. So what about the young women and men caught stateless with all the hopes that young people have? Here's Lisa Singh on that shaky line again.

SINGH: We sat yesterday with a number of young adolescent women and I asked them some questions about their situation.

MOTTRAM: She's speaking of the young women she met in the past day who talked about wanting to be doctors and other professionals, but for whom the future looks very bleak. A tunnel without a light at the end. And Senator Singh and MP Andrew Broad both agree Australia has made a good contribution to alleviating conditions for the Rohingya refugees. They say there is though a long-term task to be funded, to ensure that stateless, traumatized young people don't end up in new cycles of brutality or answering the lure of extremism. Andrew Broad also says Muslim states should be doing more to help.