The Labeling Problem in Southeast Asia's Refugee Crisis
Rohingya IDPs near Sittwe in Myanmar.
Image Credit: Flickr/European Commission DG ECHO

The Labeling Problem in Southeast Asia's Refugee Crisis


This article is part of “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” an ongoing series  by The Diplomat for summer and fall 2015 featuring exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. All articles in the series can be found here.

In the ‘crisis’ involving the displaced Rohingya people in Southeast Asia, the preferred institutional label is “irregular migrants.” It is a term which implies that migration is well-regulated, which is not the case in South East Asia.  The ‘labeling’ or construction of identities of social groups and individuals by institutional power determines how they are dealt with by such powers. This is vividly illustrated by the current ‘crisis’, and reflects the regional securitized discourse focusing on human trafficking and transnational crime, which began in the 1990s. Under the term irregular migration,” the ‘crisis’ of the Rohingya people is reduced to one of human trafficking and smuggling, rather than one of systematic persecution within Myanmar.

The ambiguous labeling of refugees by ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) is a recurrent theme in a region where states have been reluctant to recognize their responsibilities under international law. During the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese Refugees (CPA) in the 1980s and 1990s, brokered by ASEAN, ‘refugees’ were persistently but ambiguously described as “illegal immigrants/displaced persons (refugees) from Indochina.”

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The issue of displaced Rohingya people in South East Asia is not new, and as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently opined, “is not exactly an invasion,” but for some years it has been ignored by states and policymakers in the region.  Ironically, the Rohingya people issue has become a crisis for the very reason that it has not been tackled; namely the labeling of the Rohingya as “irregular migrants,” which allows them to be seen solely as victims of smuggling and trafficking rather than of state persecution.

Apart from ASEAN, the main regional dialogue is through the Australia-Indonesia led Bali Process (whose full title is the Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime). The Bali Process, which commenced in 2002, is a direct successor of the regional securitized discourse focusing on human trafficking and transnational crime from the 1990s. It lay dormant until 2009, reactivated in part in response to the forcible mass expulsion of Rohingya people from Myanmar. Unsurprisingly, the Bali Process does not focus on protection issues for the Rohingya within Myanmar.

As the region continued to ignore the protection needs of the Rohingya, smugglers and traffickers stepped into the path of these vulnerable people, recently labelled as “illegal workers” by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Indeed it was the discovery and disruption of traffickers camps for Rohingya people which contributed to the current crisis of “boat migrants” in the Indian Ocean.

The labeling of the issue as an “alarming rise in the irregular movement of persons in the Indian Ocean” does not fit well with either the facts of the matter or with ASEAN’s recognition of the causes of ‘refugeehood’ or the protection needs of refugees. The ASEAN Charter provides that “ASEAN shall promote its common ASEAN identity and a sense of belonging among its peoples in order to achieve its shared destiny, goals and values” through an ASEAN Community, which includes the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC).

One recent commentator described refugees as “part of ASEAN’s social fabric” but refugee issues only fall under the APSC, which promotes “a people-oriented ASEAN in which all sectors of society, regardless of gender, race, religion, language, or social and cultural background, are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building.”

The APSC subscribes to “a comprehensive approach to security, which acknowledges the interwoven relationships of political, economic, social-cultural and environmental dimensions of development.”

Within the APSC, refugees are constructed both within a national security paradigm as “victims of conflict,” and as beneficiaries of a “human security” approach which recognizes the risks to regional harmony, arising from gaps in economic development.

Further, refugee rights are provided in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). The ADHR, Article 2 provides guarantees for the very freedoms which are at the base of the need for refugee status in the region, namely freedom from discrimination on the basis of “race, gender, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, disability or other status.”  Article 14 of the ADHR enshrines the principle of non-refoulement when it states without qualification that: “No person shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Articles 15 and 16 refer to the right to freedom of movement and specifically to the right to seek asylum.

None of this is encapsulated by the term “irregular migration.” Rather the term fits with the Bali Process labeling of the symptoms of displacement left by the vacuum of state responsibility. Accordingly, only these symptoms are being addressed, rather than the root causes.

The 17 recommendations in the statement by states following the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, held on May 29, 2015 in Bangkok, largely focus upon responding to the issue of “human trafficking” and “people smuggling” ahead of lasting solutions. Only the final recommendation (q) which refers to root causes and improving livelihoods in “at-risk communities” makes an allusion to the protection needs of the Rohingya. It picks up the ASEAN understanding of the refugee, as a person in need of “enhancing a sense of security and belonging, promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services such as housing, education and healthcare…”

The Rohingya issue shows that the “irregular migrant” label is one which states in the region use individually and collectively to avoid their obligations to displaced persons within their sphere of responsibility. By avoiding the term ‘refugees’, states are constructing the Rohingya in terms of national rather than ‘human’ security.

Professor Kneebone is a Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Law, University Melbourne.  Her recent research focuses on issues around governance of forced migration issues in South East Asia. She is Secretary, International Association for the Study of Forced Migration and has established the Asia Pacific Forced Migration Network with the support of the Refugee Research Network, York University, Canada.

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