HEADLINES: Refugees

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The sinking of a second refugee boat between Indonesia and Australia’s Christmas Island in less than a week has prompted Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, to try to revive a people-swap deal with Malaysia and end an impasse on asylum seekers. More than 120 people were rescued and up to 10 were missing after a crowded boat sank in the Indian Ocean on its way to Australia, less than a week after about 90 asylum seekers died when their boat sank in the same area. Gillard has an agreement with Malaysia to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia to have their claims assessed, in return for accepting 4,000 asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees. The conservative opposition, however, has opposed the Malaysian option because Malaysia has not signed the U.N. refugee convention. [Reuters]

A Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board, according to refugees. The three ethnic Rohingyas, whose names have been withheld because they are currently in hiding, said their group put out to sea in six boats heading to Teknaf in the southernmost part of Bangladesh on June 8 at around 4 p.m. They said that they saw the helicopter take off from the area of Sittwe, the capital of western Burma’s Rakhine state, between 30 and 60 minutes after they launched their boats from Burmese soil. One of the three refugees — a young father who made it to Bangladesh after the ordeal — said that the helicopter then circled above three of the boats that had fallen behind for nearly 20 minutes while setting fire to them. “We saw something reddish fall on the boats and they instantly caught fire,” he said. “The helicopter was circling in the sky above the burning boats.” [Radio Free Europe]

Human Rights Watch says several thousand ethnic-Kachin refugees who fled fighting in Burma now face a serious human rights situation in southwest China and risk being forcibly returned to their war-torn homeland. The group says as many as 10,000 people have fled to China’s Yunnan province from Burma’s Kachin state, where heavy fighting broke out last year between the army and Kachin rebels. The group says Chinese authorities have “generally tolerated” the thousands of refugees. But it says officials have repatriated about 300 people to Kachin state since the conflict erupted last year. It has also documented cases where Chinese officials have turned away potential refugees at the border. At least 60,000 Kachin people have been displaced since June 2011, when fighting broke out between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, ending a 17-year ceasefire. [Voice of America]

 

According to the UNHCR, nearly 3 million Afghans will be expelled from Pakistan by the end of the year if a refugee status extension isn’t granted by the Pakistani government. Such a mass deportation could further destabilize Afghanistan, straining its economy and challenging its fledgling security forces. Although UNHCR officials are optimistic that the issue will be resolved, many Afghans in Pakistan have responded to the looming deadline by heading home after years in exile. More than 8 million Afghans fled to Pakistan between 1979 and 2002. At least half of them have returned since 2001, attracted by the promise of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. When that transition proved rocky, many fled once again, the allure of home dimmed by protracted conflict. [Washington Post]

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