With numbers almost as staggering as in Europe, the challenge in Southeast Asia is urgent and requires collective action.
While waiting for a ‘magical’ panacea to Europe’s current migrant crisis, which has seen more than 430,000 people cross EU borders as of September 2015, ASEAN countries can learn important lessons for dealing with their own refugee situation.
With numbers almost as staggering as in Europe, the challenge in Southeast Asia is urgent and requires collective action. According to the UNHCR, in 2014 there were more than 520,000 refugees and asylum seekers, with only around 150,000 formally registered. In addition there were nearly 1.4 million stateless persons and an estimated 20,000 irregular maritime migrants in the region.
This massive number has led to human rights defenders criticising ASEAN’s efforts in managing the refugee crisis, and specifically the region’s failure to handle the Rohingya emergency in May. Sadly, the situation has not improved. As has been reported, in the first quarter of 2015 at least 25,000 Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis (generally not seeking asylum) have sough to enter other Southeast Asian nations.
So what are the key lessons for ASEAN?
The first lesson is the importance of policy preparedness. Since 1999 the EU has been working to create a framework which standardises the management of refugees, the Common European Asylum System, and improve the current legislative framework. In the past couples of years, several legislative measures harmonising common minimum standards for asylum were adopted, including Dublin regulations I, II and III.
However, while regional policies have been introduced, when it comes to their implementation a lack of common political will has resulted in nationalist immigration policies and increasingly anti-refugee politics in several EU countries. Politicians in those countries, feeling insecure and fearful about the effects of immigration, are instead preoccupied with vague ideas about national identity, religious inconsistency, and far-right ideology.
While ASEAN still lacks a regional refugee framework, when it comes to burden sharing, member countries have already shown that they can work together on the issue. We can see the evidence in the Indochinese crisis of 1975 to 1995. As a result of war, some 1.4 million refugees fled Cambodia and Vietnam, seeking asylum in neighbouring countries. Under the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), Southeast Asian countries agreed to provide temporary asylum.
As others have noted, despite the CPA’s flaws “it undeniably achieved its goal of ending the Indochinese refugee crisis. In a few years, the number of Vietnamese seeking asylum each year plummeted from 70,000 to an astonishing 41. At the same time, the much small number of refugees arriving overland from Cambodia and Laos also diminished.”
The second lesson is the importance of political will. In the face of the current crisis, the EU has splintered on East-West lines when it comes to asylum policies.
On the one hand, there are countries that have suspended the Dublin rule, which places responsibility for processing an asylum seeker’s claims on the first EU country they arrive at. On the other hand, there are countries which insist on enacting the regulation.
In this matter, ASEAN needs to recognise that no matter how good and effective harmonisation of asylum policies are, nothing is fully guaranteed if it is not supported with political will and strong commitment by regional members.
The third lesson is the importance of keeping a constant watch on the sea. Many have died attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.
An estimated 63,000 people are believed to have traveled by boat in an irregular and dangerous way in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea of Myanmar’s west coast in 2014. Another 25,000 (including Rohingya and Bangladeshis) made the perilous journey in the first quarter of 2015. These desperate travellers are part of a complex, mixed migratory movement composed of refugees, stateless people and economic migrants.
Unlike Europe, ASEAN must devote enormous interest in its sea borders rather than vowing to accept refugees when they make landfall.
Lastly, the EU has been criticised for focusing too little on the root causes of the refugee problem. A fresh EU foreign policy to help Syria’s ongoing political turmoil would greatly relieve the country’s refugees. Similarly, ASEAN also needs a plain foreign policy focusing on the development of Rohingya people’s living conditions in Myanmar.
In an emergency ASEAN meeting on people movement, Indonesia proposed cooperating with Myanmar on this. This is a good proposal that needs to be supported fully by other ASEAN members; tackling refugees it is not just about managing the flow of the people but also dealing with the roots of conflict that contribute to these massive movements.
Above all, ‘refugee emergencies’, as Andrew Shacknove has said, ‘are a chronic condition of our time’. Managing refugee crises is an eternal work that needs to be updated, revised and increased constantly. In this decade of growing regionalism, we must recognise that refugee crises must also be governed by the power and spirit of regionalism.
Today, EU regionalism has been galvanised by Europe’s so-called refugee upheaval. Regardless of whether the EU will successfully manage this crisis or not, what is obvious is that the seeds of ASEAN’s refugee crisis are growing.
The fate of tomorrow’s refugees in the region hinges on the answer to one question; has ASEAN learnt from Europe?
Dimas Kuncoro Jati researches international law at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.