Representatives from 17 countries and three international organisations meeting in Bangkok to discuss South-East Asia’s migrant crisis may learn from the previous refugee crisis that hit the region during the Indochina war.
Last week, after having played a game of human water polo at sea, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments agreed to temporarily shelter 3000 boat people who had been rescued – mostly by fishermen – and taken ashore. Around 4000 people are believed to still be languishing at sea, waiting to be rescued.
Most of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshi people migrating for largely economic reasons.
Learning from the Indochinese refugee crisis
The two most pressing issues to discuss are the safety of the thousands of people at sea and refugee resettlement.
South-East Asia has faced such a crisis before. As a result of the Indochina war, 1,436,566 refugees fled Cambodia and Vietnam and arrived in South-East Asian countries looking for asylum between 1975 and 1995.
The United Nations sponsored two international conferences on the Indochinese refugee crisis in 1979 and 1989. The latter produced the “Comprehensive Plan of Action”.
Under this agreement, South-East Asian countries agreed to provide temporary asylum. The US, Australia and several European countries provided resettlement for the refugees. The Vietnamese government also cracked down on fleeing boats, halting the exodus.
Up to 1995, 1,311,183 asylum seekers were resettled. The rest were repatriated.
Several countries have sent positive signals about resettling refugees. Representatives at Friday’s meeting can model the solution for the current crisis on how the international community solved the Indochinese refugee crisis.
The US has declared its willingness to accept Rohingya refugees. The Philippines, one of two countries in South-East Asia that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, is also willing to take some of the refugees.
Gambia, a not-so-wealthy country in West Africa, has offered permanent asylum to the Rohingya as “fellow Muslims”. Gambia, however, still requests financial assistance from international organisations and developed nations to support its effort.
Yet Australia, a signatory to the Refugee Convention, has refused to accept any refugees from the current crisis. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his government:
… will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life.
As party to the convention, Australia should grant asylum to some of the refugees, ensuring their rights are protected in accordance with legal and humanitarian standard.
Addressing ‘root causes’
To provide a lasting solution, the meeting should address the root problems that compel the migrants to flee their countries and take the arduous and dangerous journey on boats.
For people from Bangladesh, extreme poverty and lack of jobs have motivated them to migrate. Rohingya people from the Burmese Rakhine state have been denied citizenship by the government, resulting in multiple human rights violations and discrimination by both the government and Myanmar’s Buddhist fundamentalists.
The meeting should discuss how to ensure Myanmar’s government stops its prolonged discrimination against Rohingya people. The government should acknowledge the Rohingya as their ethnic minority and grant them citizenship.
To this end, ASEAN should continue its “constructive engagement”, the organisation’s way of using political dialogue instead of coercive measures such as economic sanction or diplomatic isolation, with Myanmar.
Meanwhile, countries such as the United States and Australia should continue to pressure Myanmar to end its human rights violations. Governments may use trade or aid as an incentive to improve human rights in the country.
The meeting should also discuss other, related causes of the crisis. Human traffickers target stateless and devastated Rohingya people. Many have ended up being enslaved, such as those forced to work in the Thai fishing industry or held for ransom in jungle camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
In this regard, Australia’s efforts in combating human trafficking and smuggling in South-East Asia – through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime – should be applied in this crisis too. Since 2002, Australia together with Indonesia has been co-chairing the voluntary forum, now joined by 45 members, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC).
The Rohingya people are caught between persecution at home and human traffickers. Members of the international community should do all they can to end their misery.