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  • South East Asia is facing its worst refugee crisis since the Vietnam War, as Rohingya flee discrimination in Myanmar.

    South East Asia is facing its worst refugee crisis since the Vietnam War, as Rohingya flee discrimination in Myanmar. | Photo: Reuters

Published 21 May 2015

While Australia is one of the few countries in the region that has signed on to the UN Convention, it is refusing to assist Rohingya refugees.

Indonesia criticized Australia Thursday for its handling of a bottleneck of asylum seekers in South East Asian seas.

Australia is ignoring a growing humanitarian crisis centered around thousands of ethnic Rohingya refugees stranded in the Bay of Bengal, according to Indonesia's foreign minister Arrmanatha Nasir.

“Countries that are parties to the (United Nations) convention on refugees have (a) responsibility. It is upon them to ensure that they believe in what they sign,” Nasir said from Jakarta, according to AFP. “If you believe in that when you signed it, then you should act upon it and carry out your responsibility.”

Australia is one of the few countries in the region that has signed the convention, which obliges states to provide assistance to refugees. Although Indonesia has not signed the convention, it and neighboring Malaysia have agreed to provide humanitarian assistance to 7000 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas stranded on the high seas – but only for a year. The agreement has been hailed by humanitarian groups as a major step towards resolving the crisis in the Bay of Bengal.

The thousands of migrants have been trapped in the bay since people smugglers abandoned their vessels amid a Thai crackdown on undocumented migrants earlier this month.

Countries as far afield as The Gambia have since pledged to pitch in to the aid effort, but Australia has refused to provide any support.

“Nope, nope, nope,” was Prime Minister Tony Abbott's response Thursday to calls for Australia to contribute to the international effort.

Abbott claimed any effort to assist migrants would only encourage more people to flee oppression in countries like Myanmar, where human rights groups say Rohingya are facing state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. Organized violence and other forms of discrimination have prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee the country, sparking what has been hailed as the worst refugee crisis in the region since the Vietnam War.

“In the end the culprit is Burma, it is Burma where there is an issue,” Abbott stated, referring to Myanmar.

While opposition parties in Australia have slammed Abbott's decision to withhold aid, the country's largest national newspaper has published an article supporting the prime minister.

In an op-ed by the Hudson Institute's John Lee printed in News Ltd.'s The Australian newspaper, argued that Abbott's policy of closing Australia's borders to undocumented migrants had nothing to do with the build up of asylum seekers in the seas to the country's north.

“The government’s suite of 'stop the boats' policies is neither the primary cause nor an aggravating factor for the tragedy being played out,” Lee argued.

However, Greens party leader Richard Di Natale has argued Australia should “show leadership and compassion.”

“Instead of turning our backs and turning back the boats we should welcome these people with open arms,” Di Natale stated.

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