FSO Scholarship Entry

Economic, Social, and Political Policy Consequences of the Refugee Crisis in Southeast Asia

While the world watches the refugee crisis in Europe or the United States’ political debate on their border, a decades long crisis, encompassing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and harboring systemic ramifications to US interests in the region, continues to worsen in Southeast Asia. The world received a glimpse of what Anne Richard- Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration- describes as “the worst of humanity” (U.S.) when 8,000 Rohingya attempted to flee Myanmar across the Andaman Sea. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia refused any attempts by refugees to claim asylum and escorted all boats out to international waters with minimal supplies abandoning refugees to be “exploited and recruited by smugglers and traffickers” (U.S.) in the words of Assistant Security Richard (Pitsuwan). After hundreds of deaths and international outrage, the three countries conceded to temporally provide shelter for 7,000 refugees providing that the international community fund and manage their resettlement within a year at a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in Bangkok attended by the United States. The deadline for resettlement is May of 2016 leaving many refugees seeking asylum uncertain of their immediate future (Hookway).

As a foreign service officer in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, a subsidiary under the State Department, my official mission demands my efforts within the bureau “provide protection, ease suffering, and resolve the plight of persecuted and uprooted people” (Southeast Asia) through humanitarian aid and international cooperation all while ensuring the US’s humanitarian principles are represented in our foreign policy and national security (Southeast Asia).  The Institute for Peace outlines four factors that my bureau must help address to ensure an end to this refugee crisis, stability in the region, and successful steps towards economic integration as laid out in the Transpacific Partnership (Trans-Pacific). The first is the “slow genocide” (Pitsuwan) of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and also in Bangladesh. Second, the “demographic, economic and political pressures” (Clapp) in Bangladesh. The third issue concerns the “unfettered growth of a group of vicious human traffickers” (Clapp). Lastly, the prevalence of weak and corrupt governments, many still classified as illiberal as they continue democratization, that contribute to human trafficking and bred this humanitarian crisis. In order to protect US interests in the region, my bureau and I must work with an international framework of multiple local and international organizations and regional governments to develop holistic solutions to control migration, help the victims of this crisis, and assuage the components of this problem as laid out by the Institute of Peace (Clapp).

The plight of the stateless Rohingya, the muslim minority of Myanmar, stems from their lack of recognition as citizens. With growing Buddhist nationalism and Burmanization, inflammatory rhetoric continues to demonize the largely peaceful and legitimate Rohingya minority concentrated in the Rakhine State. Political violence and economic exclusion compel many to flee their homes and seek refuge internationally (Schissler). In order to address the continued marginalization of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Tom Malinowski, met with government officials from Myanmar to discuss the transition of the military to civilian control, the elimination of the parliamentary seats guaranteed to the military, as well as extending citizenship to the ethnic minorities with established roots in the country.  Since 2012, the US has provided over $500 million to support Myanmar’s democratization with major funding being provided for the implementation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and efforts to increase the participation of civil society in the peace process (U.S). The US must continue to provide monetary support in order to grow the necessary civil society to sustain a democratic transition and continue to pressure the Myanmar government, especially the military, to extend citizenship rights to the Rohingya and to sign, along with other ASEAN members, the UN’s Convention on Refugees (di Gaetano). In conjunction with these efforts, my bureau must continue to provide funding and aid through the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR to provide humanitarian support to the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar.

Working with the IOM and the UNHCR as well as local NGO’s and governments, my bureau has contributed 3 million dollars to the resettlement of the Rohingya refugees and, over the last several years, settled many from camps in Thailand and Malaysia in the United States (U.S). I must continue to facilitate these resettlements of refugees and also encourage, as was done at the emergency meeting in Bangkok, that asylum seekers receive humane treatment in alignment with UNHCR and IOM standards. The Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs should provide funds and a path for foreign investment (e.g. micro loan infrastructure, security to US private investments) to help economically develop the Rakhine state in order to provide an incentive for the Rohingya to remain in Myanmar and lesson their economic inequality. While my bureau’s multilateral efforts to provide the Rohingya with humanitarian aid and the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labors efforts to, in conjunction with the international community and local NGO’s as well as Aung San Suu Kyi (the prominent leader of the National League for Democracy), pressure the government to extend the right of citizenship to the Rohingya people, the economic development of the region remains necessary in order to lesson the economic inequality of the Rohingya and not only stem emigration but foster further equality (Saltsman).

The expansion of human trafficking networks facilitated by corrupt government officials threatens economic integration in the Pacific region (Clapp). Pressuring the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh into recognizing Rohingya as citizens and in turn receiving financial assistance from the US to not only implement democratic reforms but foster civil society and investment in underdeveloped regions will lead to a decrease in economic and social inequality thereby curtailing the flow of refugees (Saltsman). With migration under control, the reign of the human traffickers ceases but the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor must pressure the governments of the region, such as Malaysia (a TPP member), to rout the corruption that enabled these traffickers to operate, exploit refugees in labor camps, and commit mass murder leaving behind mass graves still being discovered (Hookway). This initiative must occur in conjunction with an effort by the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs to increase foreign investment into countries, such as Malaysia, to decrease their employment in the informal economic market which exploits refugees for low wages and benefits from human trafficking. My bureau should, at the same time, encourage the governments of the Bangkok declaration to provide resources to ensure the health and, in some cases, return of migrants and refugees within their borders. In addition to investment incentives, I ,along with my bureau, should pressure these governments to allow some migrants to settle within their borders as citizens to provide a supplement to their labor force and to protect these resettled refugees from exploitation (Saltsman). These initiatives would reduce the influence of human trafficking in the region ensuring stability and the sustainability of the US plan for further economic integration (Clapp).

If my bureau, with a multilateral international and local framework, can provide economic assistance and incentives to the countries and refugees in the region to foster democracy and a strong civil society, end the refugee crisis, and end the persecution of minorities and their exploitation by human traffickers, we will successfully protect the US’s goals for greater economic integration, through the Transpacific Partnership, and to end the global human trafficking trade in the region (End, Trans-Pacific).

Works Cited

Clapp, Priscilla. “S.E. Asian Migrant Emergency Cries for Global Solution.” United States Institute of Peace. 27 May 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Di Gaetano, Silvia. “How to Solve Southeast Asia’s Refugee Crisis.” The Diplomat. 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

“End Human Trafficking.” The White House. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Hookway, James. “Southeast Asia Seeks Regional Solution to Refugee Crisis.” Washington Street Journal. 29 May 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Pitsuwan, Surin, and Prashanth Parameswaran. “Why Southeast Asia’s Refugee Crisis Matters.” The Diplomat. 23 July 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Saltsman, Adam. “A Real Durable Solution for Southeast Asia’s Refugees.” The Diplomat. 10 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Schissler, Matt, Matthew J. Walton, and Phyu Thi. “The Roots of Religious Conflict in Myanmar.” The Diplomat. 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

“Southeast Asia.” U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Public Affairs, 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership.” USTR.gov. Office of United States Trade Representation. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

“U.S. Refugee and Migration Policy and Programs in Southeast Asia.” US State Department. 3 June 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.


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