Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday ruled out allowing Rohingya migrants to be resettled in the country, urging them to enter the island nation through the “front door.” His comments come as thousands remain stranded at sea -- some of them trapped for over 40 days on boats without food or water -- in Southeast Asia.
“Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life,” Abbott said, according to the Guardian, adding: “I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door."
“Don’t think that getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler is going to do you or your family any good,” he reportedly said, adding: “If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better.”
Abbott, however, said that Australia was willing to assist the migrants in other ways such as providing humanitarian assistance in Myanmar, ABC News reported.
"Nope, nope, nope. We have a very clear refugee and humanitarian program," Abbott said, according to Sydney Morning Herald, adding: "It's a refugee and humanitarian program which has been modestly expanded because we have stopped the boats and we are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats."
The statement comes even as international pressure mounts over countries in the region to allow migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. On Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia said they would not deny migrant boats anymore, provided the people can be resettled or repatriated by international agencies within a year. The U.S. also said it is willing to take Rohingya refugees as part of international efforts to cope up with the brewing migrant crisis.
While Abbott maintained the country’s hardliner statement on refugee resettlement, despite the country being a signatory of the Refugee Convention, opposition leader Bill Shorten has asked the government to “engage” more in the region.
“Where there is an unfolding humanitarian crisis in South-East Asia, Tony Abbott's 'not my problem' approach is disappointing. There's no doubt there's terrible violence happening in parts which are affecting the Rohingya people,” Shorten said, according to Daily Mail.
Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, criticized Abbott’s comments, and said that there were more than 11 million refugees in the world and less than 1 percent were resettled by the United Nations.
"People aren't risking their lives on boats in order to jump some queue. They are risking their lives because they're fleeing danger and no queue exists," Webb said, according to Sydney Morning Herald, adding: "Slashing 6,250 places from our refugee intake and spruiking regional deterrence, rather than regional protection, doesn't help."
Over 7,000 people are still stuck at sea, while several others have died on the journey, Malaysia and Indonesia said in a joint statement on Wednesday. In the last three weeks, over 3,000 people have landed in overcrowded boats while aid groups estimate that several people are stuck at sea after being abandoned by ships’ captains and people smugglers.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Thursday that he has ordered the country’s navy to conduct search and rescue missions to help save the thousands of migrants believed to be stranded at sea, Reuters reported.
"I have further ordered @tldm_rasmi (navy) and APMM (Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency) to conduct search and rescue efforts on Rohingya boats," Razak reportedly said on his Twitter account. "We have to prevent loss of life," he said. He added that humanitarian aid would be delivered by land and sea.
However, Thailand said it will not provide any shelter to the incoming migrants. "There will definitely be no migrant shelters," Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told parliament on Wednesday.