While the world watches the refugee crisis in Europe or the United States politicizing their borders, a decades long crisis, encompassing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and harboring global ramifications, continues to worsen in Southeast Asia.
The world received a glimpse of this complex and systematic crisis 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. 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.
The plight of the Rohingya, the muslim minority of Myanmar, stems from their lack of recognition as citizens- an abuse many other minorities in Myanmar and Southeast Asia endure. 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- many Southeast Asian minorities face similar circumstances such as the Kachin, the Shan, and the Chin.
As the origin of refugees shifts from Indochina to predominantly Myanmar and Bangladesh, the United States and other Western countries have ended their resettlement programs. With the UN believing over 500,000 people attempted to claim refugee status in the region in 2015, the move by Australia to follow in the footstep of its ASEAN partners and close its borders to resettlement leaves many refugees without a destination.
The majority of Southeast Asian countries are not bound to the Convention on Refugees sponsored by the United Nations in 1951. Without international law governing their treatment of refugees, many countries make no distinction between forced migration and voluntary migration or political persecution and economic opportunity. This has led to the internationally condemned policy of refoulement- sending refugees with legitimate claims for asylum (imminent danger to life upon return) back to their country of origin. Due to international scrutiny, countries like Thailand and Malaysia employ a “help on” policy opposed to a “push back” policy: each country, claiming they are not refugees’ desired final destination, provide refugee boats with supply but grant them no rights or entrance.
Over the last few years, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, issued a declaration on rights of refugees as well as the Bangkok Declaration and the establishment of the Bali Process to move towards greater protections for refugees. Southeast Asian policy revolves around the combating of smuggling and human trafficking with international funding reinforcing this priority. Due to this, resolutions tend to focus on stemming the flow of refugees not addressing their root causes or solutions to the immediate crisis. Along with ASEAN’s conflicting principles of unity and non-interventionism, countries such as Thailand continue to rely on the inexpensive labor force provided by refugees and actively participate in their persecution and imprisonment in forced labor camps.
The Rohingya and the larger refugee crisis in Southeast Asia acts as a microcosm for the global struggle in providing for displaced persons. With the lack of supranational frameworks as well as international accountability, Southeast Asia will continue to suffer under the weight of refugees. Refugee’s will continue to endure inhuman and illegal treatment. This crisis constitutes a global issue not only due to the gross violations of human rights and expansion of smuggling networks but as example of the need for global cooperation amid growing asylum claims.
The United Nations predicts the number of displaced persons will continue to increase due to climate change and conflict in the following years. It remains the responsibility, of even poor countries, to act in accordance with international law.
In Southeast Asia, countries must sacrifice their nationalism to not only provide minorities with human rights and political representation but to allow for the integration and respect of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. In regards to Myanmar, the international community must band together to decrease the influence their military wields through mandatory parliamentary seats by threatening to reimpose sanctions and pressure the government to include the rights of minorities in their constitution. In regards to Australia, they must lead ASEAN in the implementation of the Bali process and allocate resources to the resettlement of refugees in order to persuade others to follow. ASEAN, as a body, must enforce agreements on the rights of refugees through economic or punitive incentives as well as pressure countries to join the Convention on Refugees.
Xenophobia constitutes a growing issue around the globe, effecting even my close friends and neighbors, and if regional organizations and the international community fail to establish networks for safely and effectively providing shelter to refugees, millions of persecuted peoples will fall victim to unthinkable atrocities this year.