23 August 2019: Plan International analysis reveals troubling public attitudes to Rohingya crisis

Pervasive racism, parochialism and fear of refugees settling in Australia are all attitudes commonly associated with news coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis, according to an analysis conducted by Plan International Australia. 

Two years on from a mass exodus from Myanmar, Plan International examined more than 1000 comments left on dozens of articles pertaining to the Rohingya crisis. 

On August 25 2017, the world witnessed the beginning of a massive exodus of Rohingya from their home in Rahkine state, fleeing unspeakable atrocities. More than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh, which is now home to nearly one million Rohingya. The crisis remains one of the largest in the world. 

While many Rohingya families long to return to their homes, they fear facing the same situation they fled from. The root causes of the crisis have not been addressed, and repatriation discussions remain fraught with difficulties.

While the crisis has been widely and sympathetically reported in mainstream Australian media, Plan International’s investigation found seven common misconceptions or poor attitudes relating to the emergency on social media. 

  1. Islam is to blame for the crisis.
  2. Australia should not provide aid to support the Rohingya refugees. 
  3. The Rohingya refugees should stay in Bangladesh. 
  4. The Rohingya refugees should not be resettled in Australia. 
  5. Islamic countries should support and resettle the Rohingya.
  6. The United Nations cannot be trusted. 
  7. Australia shouldn’t get involved. 

Susanne Legena, CEO of Plan International Australia, said the report aimed to correct the public record and challenge negative attitudes towards the crisis.

“It is deeply concerning that this analysis has uncovered a considerable amount of misinformation being spread in the comments sections on social media in Australia. Many of these views show a lack of compassion for the complex and heart-breaking situation these people are caught up in. Our message to them is that this is first and foremost a children’s crisis and that no parent would willingly choose for their child to live like this. 

“They have lost their homes, their education has come to a halt, and they face risk of disease and abuse. Those who are especially vulnerable, such as girls and unaccompanied children are at particular risk for human trafficking, sexual abuse, child labour, and child marriage.

“Not all of the comments we examined were deliberately unkind. We understand that often, negative attitudes about humanitarian crises are the result of a lack of knowledge about the situation and misunderstanding. This report seeks to address some of those concerns with facts and expert advice from those at the coalface of this crisis.

“On the whole, Australians are generous people, we are known for helping out our neighbours when they are in need. We mustn’t lose focus because this crisis is ongoing. Our government must continue supporting the families trapped in limbo in Cox’s Bazar, and using its role on the UN Human Rights Council to condemn the violence in Myanmar and create a safe environment for those who choose to return to do so.”

Ms Legena said the findings of the report were also a call to action to people in Australia.

“Everyone has the power to help the Rohingya children and families caught in this crisis – you can donate to aid agencies providing support in the camps in Bangladesh, and challenge negative attitudes and myths if you ever come across them among friends, family and colleagues.” 

Orla Murphy, the Country Director for Plan International in Bangladesh, which is responsible for leading the agencies’ humanitarian program in Cox’s Bazar, said the international community needs to stand by the Rohingya refugees.

“Two years into this crisis and conditions in the camps remain dire. There remain concerns about safety and security, particularly for vulnerable groups like girls, children and people with disabilities. And now the cyclone season is approaching, which brings new risks as these families are living in bamboo and plastic sheeting structures.

“These children and families lost their homes, they can’t go to school or work, and so are unavoidably reliant on aid and the generosity of the global community.

“Wealthy countries need to support the Government of Bangladesh and the development community to improve living conditions and allow refugees to live with dignity. And a political solution needs to be found to enable families to return voluntarily and safely to their homes, and for their rights, security and dignity to be protected in Myanmar.”

About the analysis

  • An audit of more than 1000 comments was undertaken by Plan International Australia, focussing on 39 news reports about the Rohingya crisis posted on the Facebook pages of the Australian, ABC News, SBS News, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Guardian. Comments of a negative nature were collated into common themes. Experts working in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, and Plan Bangladesh senior staff were consulted, along ACFID, programmatic and advocacy staff at Plan International Australia, in order to respond to the seven most common themes that emerged. 

About Plan International

Plan International is a leading girls’ rights agency. We champion girls’ rights because we know that there is nowhere in the world where girls are treated as equals. We work alongside children, young people, supporters and partners to tackle the root causes of injustices facing girls and the most marginalised children. Plan International works in more than 75 countries to help create a just world that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. Our local office, Plan International Australia funds programs to support children in more than 25 countries, as well as sponsorship programs across the federation.