Thousands have been killed in brutal crackdowns on protests calling for the restoration of democratic rule, including medics, journalists, and citizen activists. The conflict has also wrapped up ethnic armed groups, who have been fighting the Myanmar military for decades in the pursuit of greater rights and freedoms for ethnic minorities, with the conflict involving the use of indiscriminate shelling, heavy air and artillery bombardments, and the torching of villages by Myanmar military forces in cases documented and noted by Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations, among others.

It's in this context of repression, conflict, and violence that Burmese students studying in Australia face if, and when, they return to their home country. 

A cohort of these students have been granted opportunities to study at Australian institutions under the 'Australian Awards' program, a scheme which requires all students to return home on completion of their studies. 

An open letter organised by a coalition of Australian academics, including senior academics here at UNSW's Faculty of Law & Justice, has called on the Federal Government to award the 30 or so Australian Awards students from Myanmar with humanitarian visas. 

We sat down with UNSW's Professor Melissa Crouch who is part of that effort calling on the government to provide these visas to Burmese students.

A group of Australian academics is calling on the federal government to grant humanitarian protection visas to students from Myanmar who have not been able to return to their country following the military coup in February 2021. Professor Melissa Crouch at UNSW Law & Justice, who is a signatory, answers some questions about the students, their situation and the academic’s open letter.

Q: Why did the academics decide to write an open letter to the government?

Australian universities are fortunate to host bright and intelligent students from across the region through its Australia Awards program. Some of these students are from Myanmar. Usually they are required to return home after they complete their degree, and many alumni have made major contributions to their home country when they return – in business, the arts, education, government, and so forth. 

However, since the military coup of 1 February 2021, students from Myanmar studying in Australia have been unable to return. They are now on temporary visas in Australia. The previous government failed to ensure a more permanent visa solution and so we are now urging the new government to do so. 

Q: Why are UNSW Law & Justice academics involved in supporting this open letter?  

The Faculty of Law & Justice has fostered long-term collaborations in Myanmar with students, academics, judges, lawyers and civil society. One way we have done this is through the Australia Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project. This was initiated by Wojciech Sadurkzi from the University of Sydney and in more recent years has been led by Martin Krygier at UNSW, with Theunis Roux, Adam Czarnota and myself, along with Catherine Renshaw of Western Sydney University (WSU). 

While the coup means we can no longer run in-person dialogues on constitutional literacy in Myanmar, we feel a great sense of responsibility to those people we have come to know as colleagues and friends. 

This open letter is a way for us to support Burmese students in Australia who are in need of a permanent humanitarian visa. It is a small means of helping those who are seeking to oppose military rule and return to civilian rule in Myanmar.  

Q: Why is the situation of these students unique and what should the federal government do to resolve this situation?  

The situation for Australia Awards alumni still in Australia is different from other Burmese alumni in Australia because the former are contractually required by their Australia Awards scholarship with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to return to their country of origin after they complete their study. If they instead apply for a permanent visa in Australia, the students are liable to repay the Commonwealth the full costs of their scholarship. This would be impossible, and so the students have hesitated to apply for a permanent visa. 

The solution is fairly simple. The Minister for Foreign Affairs would confirm in writing that she will waive the repayment clause if the students seek a permanent visa on humanitarian grounds. This clause is reasonable in normal circumstances. But when a military suddenly takes control of the country, and when many parts of the country are wracked by violence, it would be unconscionable for the government to require students from Myanmar to return to such conditions.  

Once that clause is waived, the Minister for Home Affairs would then review and accept the students’ potential applications for permanent visa status, based on humanitarian grounds. 

Q: Why are these students are at risk? 

The political situation in Myanmar is extraordinarily volatile, not unlike Ukraine. The military regime is bent on gaining full control and will not hesitate to go after anyone who opposes them – students, artists, writers, business people, former politicians, doctors, nurses, even the children of people who oppose the military have been arrested. 

The situation is also very unpredictable. There is urban warfare raging sporadically in some towns. The military is using violence in various forms – traditional warfare, paramilitary forces, torture, and so forth – without hesitation. Such turbulence means that almost anyone who returns is at risk. Given that the military still has Australian Professor Sean Turnell under arrest, it’s possible students returning with degrees from Australia will be perceived as opponents of the regime. 

Like many students in the Australia Awards program, the students from Myanmar come from diverse backgrounds – some from civil society, the civil service, and so forth. Many if not all of them have been very active online in supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement against the military. Many students also have family members, friends and colleagues still in Myanmar who have opposed military rule and suffered the devastating effects of military takeover. Even if you so much as have a relative who has openly opposed military rule, you are potentially at risk.

It is fair to say that prior to the coup, all of the students intended to return to Myanmar. Now, under drastically different circumstances, many fear it is simply not safe to return, although they have hopes of returning one day.