The Absence of Policy AND Practice: the Refugee Crisis in SEA

Previously on this site, we’ve discussed the refugee crisis in Europe; the international conventions that dictate and guide responses to refugee flows, in turn a response to the post World War 2 ‘never again’ moral affirmation. We have also discussed the refugees of the future – climate migrants – and the need, if we are willing to learn the lessons from today’s crisis, to prepare, to have regional frameworks and guiding principles and actual plans and processes to help integrate these (very near) future migrants and refugees.

Now we want to talk about what happens when you lack that legal framework (such as the 1951 Refugee Convention) and about what happens when there is an absence of planning and systems in place to integrate migrants into host countries.

The setting: Southeast Asia.

The migrants/refugees/trafficking victims: Rohingya from Myanmar and citizens of Bangladesh.

The problem: no one wants them and none of the countries involved are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention legally obligating them to provide asylum.

What happened: boatloads of migrants and refugees were pushed back to sea to starve, while dozens of bodies of migrants and refugees were discovered by local police in camps run by traffickers in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia.

Let us tell you about the chaos. Because indeed it was. There were countries (Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) claiming that the migrants were not their responsibility and perhaps legally they were not. However, the moral outrage globally of watching women and children suffer on these boats was beyond the ken of so many… at first it was just a few fishermen from Indonesia, then it was many. Bucking instructions from the government that they were not to bring the boats ashore, the fishermen simply transferred people from the boats to their own smaller vessels, making trip after trip to bring them to safety… where they were welcomed with compassion, food and shelter by the local community. This display of compassion and adherence to local customary law, in which you do not abandon those in distress, set the stage for an agreement among the three countries to allow the boats to shore. Further, it was agreed that the Rohingya refugees would not be returned, in line with customary principles of non-refoulement, to Myanmar as they were at high risk of persecution. But, the three countries only agreed to take in the refugees as long as the international community committed to resettle them elsewhere within one year.

What happened then? None of the countries have policy frameworks on how to deal with refugees, leaving care and service provision in the hands of UNHCR and local civil society groups. Funds were raised and local governments tried to coordinate as they were capable. A commendable effort by all.

Problems began to arise almost immediately, however, because local government does not have a mandate to provide services and integration support to refugees. Money diverted to deliver emergency medical services put the local governments at risk of reprimand for misuse of funds. There were no laws or regulations allowing them to reallocate money for humanitarian purposes. There were questions about the land where refugee camps were located. There were questions about security. Local civil society groups did the best they could to provide services, to allow the refugees to live with the dignity they rightfully deserve, but money was in short supply. Refugees and migrants who had previously settled in urban environments lived in deplorable conditions and could not access health care or other essential services, making them easy targets for illegal business and criminal networks. Legally, governments were under no obligation to do so, not being party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but one wonders what happened to moral obligation. Apparently that is the domain of civil society. But it is quite obvious we cannot go on like this.

In May last year, governments in the region began meeting on the issue of ‘irregular migrants,’ the result of which the Straits Times reported the following: “People are committed to a dialogue and all the right issues – life saving, safe disembarkation, access, humanitarian aid and root causes – are all being discussed.” Here’s the part which will trip them up though – commitment is to dialogue. But action is what is needed now.  

Part of the problem is that ‘irregular migrants’ (ie: refugees) are viewed as a security risk and a burden on society. With that view and basis for decision making, there is no impetus for action beyond allowing civil society to provide essential services. Which brings it’s own challenges: lack of specialized human resources and appropriate levels of funding, and lack of proper coordination of service provision which results in overlaps that waste resources and gaps that leave people even more vulnerable. There is also a dire lack of translators which makes a complex situation even more frustrating and burdensome for both those trying to help and those in need of it.

Chaos, indeed.

And, one imagines, not an environment conducive to promoting government action from anything other than fear and a need for isolation.

Needless to say, this situation is not going to disappear any time soon. Just last month witnessed yet another tragedy at sea as mostly women and children fled Rakhine State in Myanmar with threads of hope of a better life elsewhere. It is obvious that there needs to be a regional framework and national action.

Can it be done? If the narrative around refugees in the region can be reframed, then indeed it can. Refugees are not a security threat (although their traffickers are). A poignant quote from a man who fled his country as a youth: “Becoming refugees meant leaving our loves, our identity and our dignity behind.” These are not people seeking to do harm, but to rebuild their lives, to contribute, to reclaim their dignity, and, in many cases, pay it forward. According to the World Economic Forum, there are more benefits than risks to receiving and integrating refugees, and the best way to reap those benefits is to view support for integration as an investment; invest early – providing refugees the right to work so that they become part of the local tax base; and foster a programme or scheme of public-private partnerships to expedite integration into society. The sooner people are integrated, the sooner they can contribute and the less they are exposed to illegal and criminal elements happily waiting to take advantage of their vulnerability.

Like we said, the challenge of the refugee crisis is not going away, no matter where you are in the world. Preparedness is better than reaction any day. Action is always preferable to chaos. We’ve had experiences of both. The correct way forward is obvious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *