The Morrison government faces fresh calls to allow more than 3,000 Myanmarese citizens to stay in Australia once their visas expire, amid fears about the dangers they face if forced to return home.
With more than 600 civilians now estimated to have been killed in violent crackdowns by security forces since the 1 February military coup, Labor has written to Australian ministers to demand help for temporary visa holders and the expansion of sanctions against junta figures.
“No one should be involuntarily deported to Myanmar if they don’t want to go back,” the opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, and her home affairs colleague, Kristina Keneally, said in the letter to the government.
There were 3,366 visa holders from Myanmar in Australia at the end of February, government figures show. They included 1,680 students and 612 bridging visa holders.
Wong and Keneally said the deteriorating situation in Myanmar was “causing extreme distress for members of Myanmar’s diaspora community in Australia”.
“We are therefore urging the government to enable Myanmar nationals on temporary visas in Australia to extend their stay,” they told the foreign minister, Marise Payne, the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, and the immigration minister, Alex Hawke.
“The Morrison government has options available to act right now – the home affairs and immigration ministers have extremely broad powers and should use those powers to provide visa pathways to respond to any emerging needs.”
The letter echoes recent calls from some parliamentarians to offer a Hawke government-style amnesty to Myanmarese students currently in Australia. There has previously been speculation the government was considering visa extensions.
Wong and Keneally also used the letter to call for “additional targeted sanctions in Myanmar to demonstrate Australia’s strong opposition to these direct attacks against Myanmar’s democratic transition” – something that the government has said is currently under consideration.
“The people of Myanmar have shown enormous courage in the wake of the coup in expressing their support for democracy and human rights,” they wrote.
“Australia must demonstrate its support for the people of Myanmar and work with allied and aligned nations, including in our region, to send the strong message that democracy must be returned to Myanmar.”
The call for visa extensions is backed by Amnesty International, which has been lobbying MPs to take stronger action.
Joel MacKay, a campaigner with Amnesty International Australia, said: “The Australian government can’t send people back to Myanmar where people are being shot in the street and human rights violations are occurring regularly. That would be absolutely criminal.”
Amnesty and a range of non-government organisations, experts and community groups are scheduled to give evidence on Tuesday to a parliamentary hearing that will examine the Australian response to the military coup.
Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Defence and Austrade are due to brief the same session of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade in Canberra.
Dave Sharma, the government MP who chairs the foreign affairs and aid subcommittee, said there was “clearly a high degree of community concern within Australia about the escalating violence and rising death toll in Myanmar, and the increasingly inhumane behaviour of the military leadership there.”
The Australian government has said it is considering expanding sanctions in response to the violence in Myanmar, but hasn’t given a deadline for a decision.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, told Senate estimates last month she was weighing up additional targeted sanctions, beyond the five military figures who have been on the list since 2018.
At the time, Payne said she was “continuing to take advice on that and reviewing that with colleagues”, adding: “It is an important matter, I take it seriously.”
In early March, the Australian government suspended military cooperation with Myanmar and announced it would redirect aid to non-government organisations, but it has faced persistent calls to take a stronger stance.
The calls come amid ongoing attempts by the government to seek the release of Prof Sean Turnell, the Australian economist who has been detained in Myanmar.
Last weekend reports emerged of at least 82 people being killed in one day.
The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has argued that the world is “radically underestimating” how badly the situation in Myanmar could deteriorate, with the prospect of thousands of deaths and an exodus of refugees.