Australia has lost its standing as a world leader on humanitarian issues after taking a hardline approach to asylum seekers, a senior US official has said.
Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said on Wednesday that there had always been a “strong tradition” of the US, Canada and Australia taking the lead in tackling humanitarian issues. “That sense that Australia is in the forefront has deteriorated a bit in the last few years,” she said.
Richard met Australia’s ambassador for people smuggling issues, Andrew Goledzinowski, during an emergency international summit on the plight of thousands of Burmese and Bangladeshi caught in an asylum seeker standoff in the Andaman sea. Richard was evasive on whether Australia’s policy to turn back asylum boats had, at least in part, contributed to the standoff.
“The US takes a different approach,” she said, pointing to the policy of assessing protection claims on-board the vessels in which asylum seekers flee. The US approach of ensuring that people have an opportunity to state their case for protection “is needed throughout the region”.
About 2,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants are still stranded at sea somewhere between Burma and Malaysia, Thomas Vargas, from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia, said.
The US has a long-standing program to resettle Burmese refugees, many of whom are Rohingya. It took about 1,000 Burmese refugees in the past three months, making Burma one of the top three countries of origin for the US refugee program. Shortly after the high seas standoff made headlines, the US stepped in with an offer to resettle some of the people fleeing their homelands.
The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, has refused to resettle any of the stranded Rohingya, even if they are found to be refugees.