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Refugee Crisis Tests Limits of Southeast Asian Cooperation

Rohingya Woman in the rain. Image: Steve Gumaer/Flickr

This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 15 May 2015.

A growing Southeast Asian refugee crisis largely involving Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has strong echoes of the humanitarian disaster on Europe’s doorstep. International observers have similarly called on Myanmar; refugee destinations such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia; and regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to face up to the challenge, as the European Union finally appears to be doing with its own crisis.

At first glance the Southeast Asian situation appears more easily managed: both the origin and intended destinations of the refugees are in the same region, and the main countries concerned are all members of ASEAN. This could theoretically provide the opportunity for a more coordinated response. The story is made more complex, however, by a history of limited official commitments to human rights in the region—and to refugees’ rights in particular—coupled with a traditional ASEAN policy of non-interference in member states’ domestic policies.

Recent accounts point to thousands of refugees—predominantly from Myanmar, but reportedly also Bangladeshis seeking improved economic fortunes—currently adrift in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, after being denied entry to several countries. This followed the earlier discovery of mass graves of refugees in Thailand, tied to human trafficking by transnational criminal networks.

Refugee movements in the region are increasing, largely as a result of the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, who are denied Burmese citizenship and regularly subjected to violence at the hands of the military. An estimated 25,000 people have left the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015—double the number to have taken to those same seas in the same period of 2013 and 2014. About 300 of those 25,000 died while attempting the crossing.

Among those applying pressure over the issue is a group called ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, which has increased its long-standing advocacy for a region-wide solution to the Rohingya issue. A report it issued last month warned the situation contained nearly every risk factor identified in the UN Framework for Analysis of Atrocity Crimes. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has also called for ASEAN to act, as have Rohingya support groups around the world.

In the short term, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has implored Southeast Asian governments to step up search and rescue operations and keep their borders open, to find homes for those currently stranded at sea. In the longer term, a set of policies would ideally seek to improve the plight of the Rohingya and thus stem the tide of dangerous migration; break up the international trafficking rings; increase the safety of those journeys still attempted; and provide an effective long-term resettlement process for migrants that do complete their passage.

Such a multifaceted approach has now been adopted by the EU in response to its own significant refugee problem, which has seen 62,500 people—largely from sub-Saharan Africa—cross the Mediterranean and at least 1,800 deaths so far this year. The UNHCR has praised the new European direction—which includes providing for a fair distribution of refugees among member states—though it has yet to be properly tested.

The progress now being made in Europe could offer a potential way forward for ASEAN. However, significant barriers remain. European integration is much older and more advanced than in Southeast Asia. And, unlike EU states, the majority of ASEAN members have not signed the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention or 1954 Statelessness Convention. This includes the current destination of choice for most refugees, Malaysia, where those who do make landfall are unable to work legally and often forced into low-paying exploitative labor.

While the proximity of the source of the problem might otherwise provide an opportunity for an effective solution, in Southeast Asia it has only highlighted a limited capacity for cooperation. A spirit of non-interference in member states’ domestic policies—born from opposition to colonialism and the military expeditions of the Cold War, and a conflicting regional mix of cultural and religious histories—was outlined in ASEAN’s founding charter, the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, and adopted by all initial and expansion members. The bloc instead largely focuses on issues of collective gain, such as economic and security partnerships.

Some of the most significant criticism of ASEAN has focused on its unwillingness to address human rights abuses. This includes frequently failing to censure, let alone expel, Myanmar throughout its long history of state-sanctioned violence, and taking too long to respond to the upheaval caused by East Timor’s independence from Indonesia in 1999-2000.

It should be noted that ASEAN has made some progress towards modifying its non-critical position during the past decade, including offering a strong and unified rebuke of the Burmese junta following its crackdown on civilian protestors in 2007. But efforts supposedly aimed at boosting its human rights-promoting infrastructure have frequently been derided. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AIHCR), established in 2009, was seen by many to be “toothless,” while ASEAN’s human rights declaration of 2012 was dismissed as “a declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights.”

Neither the refugee crisis, nor the large-scale persecution of the Rohingya which is sustaining it, featured on the agenda of the most recent ASEAN Summit, held last month. It was also telling that the uncovering of mass graves saw Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha call for a three-way meeting with Myanmar and Malaysia, rather than attempt to invoke any wider ASEAN powers. Once again, this contrasts with the many EU-level summits that have addressed the Mediterranean crisis in recent weeks and months.

Nonetheless, the fact a regional meeting was called at all offers some hope that Southeast Asia may address the issue in some capacity. In light of the growing crisis, an invitation has also been extended to further countries—including more peripheral ones such as the United States and Australia—as well as civil society organizations. There are, however, reports that Myanmar will boycott the meeting, which is not scheduled until the end of this month.

The ability to truly address the situation would be enhanced if the larger coordinating powers of ASEAN could be invoked. The association does have some precedent in effectively dealing with the effects of regional disasters, as when it played a leading role in the humanitarian response to Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis in 2008, after first facing opposition from the government there.

Addressing the causes of the refugee crisis, including the domestic policies of its members, will prove a sterner test. Nonetheless, a good guide to what ASEAN could undertake is found in the recommendations of the report from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. These include expanding the mandate of the AIHCR to include country visits, inquiries, complaints, and emergency protection mechanisms, and ensure adequate independence and staffing support. This could help improve the domestic plight of the Rohingya, the wider refugee problem, and the region’s overall limited capacity to address human rights.

The EU was criticized for the considerable time it took to find the collective will and resources to respond to its own crisis, with thousands of refugees perishing in the Mediterranean in the interim. ASEAN now faces a similar test of its credibility as a regional organization. Action on addressing human rights in Southeast Asia is still driven from the bottom up, rather than the top down. It will be up to individual member states to instigate a response to the current crisis, but this must ultimately develop into a regional solution to have any chance of success.


James Bowen is the Assistant Editor of the Global Observatory.

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