MY VISIT TO THE ROHINGYA REFUGEE CAMPS IN BANGLADESH - Senate Adjournment Speech, Tuesday 6 February 2018
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to join UNICEF on a visit to a refugee camp in Bangladesh with my co-chair of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for UNICEF, National Party MP and member for Mallee, Andrew Broad. It was my first time visiting a refugee camp, and I knew it was going to be confronting, but as we arrived at Cox's Bazar and headed to Kutupalong refugee camp, I couldn't believe the extent of human misery. Crowded makeshift tents, made out of plastic and bamboo, went further than my eyes could see.
Some 688,000 refugees, including 399,000 children have fled Myanmar since 25 August last year. The eyes of the world have been on this humanitarian crisis that has been described by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'. The extreme violence and attacks by the Myanmar military have killed and persecuted thousands of men, women and children, ending the peace that elderly Rohingya still cling to.
We have seen it on our TVs, but standing face to face with them and hearing their stories was heartbreaking. We listened to harrowing stories of women being raped by soldiers whilst they watched their husbands being hanged. Many of the women are now pregnant, not knowing if they are carrying the child of their dead husband or of these Myanmar soldiers. We visited one of the UNICEF's child-friendly spaces and saw the drawings of what happened to their homes—children's drawings of houses being burnt, army helicopters shooting fire at their houses, people hanging from trees. Their innocent drawings brought the horror and conflict to life.
But I also saw the best of humanity. UNICEF and partner organisations are doing an incredible job. They have dug hundreds of water-bearing wells, installed some 16,000 toilets, vaccinated nearly a million children and adults against cholera and diphtheria and screened over 335,000 for malnutrition. I sat in a makeshift malnutrition clinic with women and their babies being weighed and doing an appetite test. Their will to survive and care for their families was so overwhelming. As a mother myself, I found it very emotional to see these mums wanting the best for their children after enduring such horrific violence and living in a miserable state of existence. They do not know what their future holds. Now, as we get closer to the monsoon season, what is already a dire humanitarian situation risks becoming a catastrophe, with the risk of landslides, flooding and disease. UNICEF and its partners are going to have to resettle thousands of refugees, cap existing wells and repair fragile structures.
I welcome Australia's contribution to this humanitarian response, but more needs to be done, especially to provide children with education and protection from trafficking. It is in the international community's interest to support peace and hold the government of Myanmar to account, to respect human rights and to provide safe and dignified return to their homes, or what is left of them. If that cannot occur, then Bangladesh, which has already been so generous, needs to be urged to allow the Rohingya to have a chance to work, be educated and settled. I want to thank UNICEF for all incredible work that they do, highlighting the plight of this humanitarian disaster, providing Andrew and me with the opportunity to visit and for the ongoing important fundraising work that they do on the ground every day, day in and day out, to support children's lives and, indeed, save children's lives in Cox's Bazar, in the refugee camp in Bangladesh.