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Monday, 20 August 2018
Page: 7838

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (11:21): I rise today to speak in support of my neighbour and friend, the member for Newcastle's motion. One year ago this Saturday hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women and children, were forced to flee their homes in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar and flee to Bangladesh. Currently, almost one million people shelter in self-made bamboo and plastic bag huts in a megacamp that stretches 10 kilometres long by eight kilometres wide. It is something that, until you see it with your own eyes, you really can't comprehend.

These people fled from shocking human rights violations and large-scale intense targeted violence. They fled their homes in a country where they are denied citizenship, where they can't move about freely, go to the doctor or find work. The atrocities they fled in many cases are unimaginable. These people crossed the border into Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, and they crossed in droves. They walked to freedom. There are almost a million refugees in Bangladesh right now.

Save the Children, who hosted the learning trip that I was fortunate enough to attend, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, report that more than half a million Rohingya people arrived within the space of one month. Of those fleeing persecution in Myanmar, more than half are children under 18 and around three per cent are aged over 60. One in six families are headed by single mothers whose husbands are dead or missing.

The people and the government of Bangladesh have shown incredible hospitality and humbling generosity to the fleeing Rohingya people. They kept their borders open—I still feel quite emotional—and are leading the humanitarian response. According to the United Nations, there are more Rohingya living in Bangladesh than in Myanmar at the moment. But the generosity of the Bangladeshi people isn't enough, as magnificent as it has been. Bangladesh, a poverty-stricken nation in its own right, is heaving under the strain and it has had to put on infrastructure, health and water services for the influx of Rohingya that it has received.

Australia, as a nation, has reached out to those in crisis and those working to help them. Since September, we've contributed $70 million to mitigate the crisis. That sounds a phenomenal number, and I must admit that there are constituents in my electorate of Paterson who bail me up every day and say: 'Meryl, charity starts at home. Why are we giving so much money overseas when we've got drought-stricken farmers and we've got homeless people?' I understand their thinking, but I say to those in the chamber and to my constituents in Paterson: 'If I could take you all to see this megacamp, you would gladly give. These people are living in poverty that we can't even imagine. And our farmers would give too.' It is really quite humbling.

When I was offered to take the tour to Bangladesh earlier this month, to learn about the way our $70 million in aid is being spent, I took the opportunity, and it is a trip I will never forget. As you can hear in my voice, I have been impacted. It gave me a perspective that I doubt anyone could fully appreciate unless they looked into the eyes of those people, particularly those beautiful children, and those who are working to help them. I really want to praise the Bangladeshi people, and I want to praise the response organisations working tirelessly to provide sanitation, housing, health care, food and education. But the reality is that the makeshift refugee camps are rife with incidents of gender based violence. The shelters are flimsy and at risk of destruction during the monsoon season, which is upon us now. Landslides are a real risk. Diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin diseases, like scabies, are rampant, largely due to poor sanitation and hygiene, and there have been more than 8,000 cases of diphtheria, which is particularly risky for children.

I want to again thank the member for Newcastle and thank the people from Save the Children and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who paid for me to go and witness this. We need to do more. We need to put pressure on the Myanmar government to grant citizenship to these people, and the Rohingya will walk home to their rightful place: the Rakhine State.