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Southeast Asia: a new refugee crisis looming?

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, 2012. Wikicommons/ FCO. some right reserved.

By Roma Rajpal, Open Democracy

Southeast Asia is seeing persecuted minorities fleeing their homeland. As in Europe, lack of political consensus has exacerbated the situation – and a new wave of migration is just about to start.

2015 will be remembered as the year of mass migration. This year, the world has endured an unprecedented flood of haunting images. The one image we have all seen over and over again is of overcrowded boats packed with desperate people in dire need of supplies. Sometimes they are Syrians, sometimes Iraqis, sometimes Africans. Among the distraught faces are also a number of people who are stateless.

In May this year, the world’s short-lived attention turned towards the thousands of migrants stranded in boats across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The boats were carrying Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority, fleeing from the Burmese state of Rakhine and Bangladesh. Denied citizenship and basic rights in Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been subjected to persecution in their own homeland. According to UN estimates, 94,000 people departed by sea from Bangladesh or Myanmar since 2014, including 31.000 people in the first half of 2015. Over 1,100 migrants have died on sea since 2014.

The boats that managed to find their way to shore were turned away and forced to return to sea. Faced with substantial international pressure, the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia subsequently reconsidered their actions and promised aid, announcing that temporary shelter would be provided on the condition that the refugees were resettled by the international community within a year.

Around the same time, mass graves were discovered near human trafficking camps in Thailand and Malaysia. Thai police confirmed that the dead were Rohingyas who had died of starvation or disease while being held by traffickers awaiting ransoms before smuggling them to Malaysia. Moreover, in a recent report Amnesty International documents that at sea too the refugees suffer terrible abuses.

The plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar is rapidly deteriorating. Just ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections on 8 November 2015, President Thein Sein signed off on a series of laws that restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage. The bills are a part of the ‘Race and Religion Protection Laws’. This could be seen as the last nail in the coffin for the Rohingyas, who have suffered discrimination for decades.

Rohingya candidates have also been barred from running in the upcoming elections and thousands have been struck off the electoral rolls and stripped of their right to vote. It remains to be seen if the National League of Democracy (NLP) party around Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, which won the recent elections by a landslide, will improve policies towards the Rohingya.

ASEAN governments don’t do enough to solve crisis

The large-scale displacement of Rohingyas has become a regional crisis for five directly affected countries – Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Along with 12 other countries, they participated in a meeting in May this year in Bangkok to discuss “irregular” migration in the Indian Ocean.

The recommendations put forward by the meeting included mobilizing resources to support emergency responses, preventing human trafficking, enhancing legal and safe channels of migration among the countries in question, and addressing the root causes of migration in the areas of origin. However, the UNHCR reports that the implementation of these proposals has yet to begin, including the establishment of a joint task force and other urgently needed mechanisms. Five months after the meeting, there has been little news about concrete measures taken.

Experts have also criticized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for failing to establish an effective legal framework for refugees. ASEAN aims to foster economic growth and social progress among its members as well as to protect regional peace and stability. But as Dr. Amy Nethery from Deakin University in Melbourne pointed out in an article in The Diplomat recently, the Rohingya refugee crisis highlights the devastating human effects of the absence of an effective asylum policy.

India and China, the wealthiest nations in the region, have remained passive bystanders, eschewing any involvement with Myanmar at a political level despite their substantial economic investments in the country. For a long time, Thailand turned a blind eye to the slave labor that was the backbone of the country’s fishing industry. Human trafficking networks have also been reported to operate with the support and protection of corrupt Thai officials.

Moreover, following the 2014 coup, Thailand’s military junta began reviewing many policies of the deposed government of Yingluck Shinawatra and tightened measures against Burmese refugees and other migrants. As the Bertelsmann Transformation Index BTI shows, discrimination and harassment of minorities is frequent in Thailand:

“Thailand has not ratified U.N. conventions on refugees, and has forcibly repatriated Burmese and Lao refugees and Rohingya refugees. Migrant workers (estimated to number in the millions), especially women, suffer salary discrimination and on-the-job harassment. Female migrant workers are perhaps the most underprivileged and maltreated social group in Thailand, and are generally ignored by Thai law.”

However, in Thailand international pressure and threat of sanctions seems to have done some good. Over the last few months, the country’s administration has cracked down on traffickers and corrupt officials.

But Thailand needs international support to combat trafficking. The region urgently needs a firm anti-trafficking policy, and it must coordinate its efforts in order to address the problem in the long term. ASEAN should also intervene by putting pressure on Myanmar because unless the root cause of the problem is addressed, there can be no sustainable solution for the Rohingya refugee crisis. Myanmar must put an end to its discriminatory policies.

With the Monsoon season ending, a new wave of refugees is expected to cross the Southeast Asian seas. Amnesty International already warns that a new “sailing season” crisis looms in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. It’s time to act now.