Towards A Real Solution to Southeast Asia's Refugee Crisis
Image Credit: Flickr/European Commission DC ECHO

Towards A Real Solution to 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.

It took the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand more than ten days to sign a joint agreement that would allow the rescue of thousands of dehydrated and starving Rohingya and Bangladeshis who had been drifting in the Andaman Sea for weeks. Under enormous international pressure, these three countries offered to help 7,000 people at sea. In fact, their gesture is far less meaningful than it seems.

Alarmed by the first arrivals on 10 May, at first, the three countries stepped up their maritime patrols. Indonesia sent out three more warships and a plane to control its territory. Instead of allowing people in dire need to disembark, their boats were pushed back into sea after being provided with food, water and fuel to continue their journey. Each government claimed its country was not the desired destinations of these boatpeople. This deadly ping-pong continued, despite harsh criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which warned that any further delay would turn these boats into floating coffins.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Against the orders of the Indonesian military, Acehnese fishermen had already rescued hundreds of people. Other Rohingya and Bangladeshis reached Indonesia and Malaysia on their own. Somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 were feared to still be drifting in the Andaman Sea. Only two days after signing the agreement, search and rescue missions took off, but not many boatpeople were found, raising questions as to how many had already died.

The sudden influx of Rohingya and Bangladeshis was caused by crackdowns on so-called trafficking networks and spurred by revelations of dozens of ‘death camps’ and ‘slave camps’ in Thailand’s south and North Malaysia. Hundreds of dead bodies have been discovered.

The sudden outcry, however, overshadows the fact that these so-called “smuggling or trafficking routes” have for long supplied cheap laborers to the plantation and fishing industries in these three countries, such as on the Indonesian island Benjina, where hundreds of Burmese fishermen were forced to work as slaves.

The fact that asylum seekers often have to work and accept very exploitative jobs is now used to re-label them as “illegal labor migrants”. But we need to understand that their journeys of escape are often rather long. Asylum seekers receive no government aid while trying to reach safe places. The fact that they work to survive should therefore make us miss the basic fact that these people are still looking for protection and the right to live.

Back to the agreement. On 20 May, the three foreign ministers finally pledged to take in 7,000 boatpeople and allow them to be processed under strict conditions. Indonesia and Malaysia offered temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community. However, the UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are already strained by the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers there.

  • Indonesia: 4,806 refugees and 7,135 asylum seekers (March 2015)
  • Thailand: 132,838 refugees including 57,500 unregistered persons originating from Myanmar living in the refugee camps and 8,336 asylum seekers (July 2014)
  • Malaysia: 98,207 refugees and 47,352 asylum seekers (July 2014)

Of these countries, Indonesia has the smallest cohort. Hundreds of asylum seekers from many countries other than Myanmar and Bangladesh keep arriving there as they are not deterred by Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders.

The average waiting time in Indonesia – from registration to first interview – ranges from six to 17 months. The average waiting time for resettlement is much longer given the few spots available for recognized refugees there. Resettlement options have further decreased since Australia announced that it would no longer resettle refugees who had registered at the UNHCR in Jakarta after 1 July 2014. Between 2000 to January of 2015, 3874 refugees have been resettled from Indonesia to mostly Australia, Canada New Zealand, Norway and Germany. During the same period, 4590 people were “voluntarily” repatriated. At this very moment, Indonesia is preparing the repatriation of 700 Bangladeshis. These returns take place even though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh called them “mentally sick” people who harmed the country’s image, saying they would be punished along with their traffickers.

The second condition of this agreement is that the international community must take on all financial responsibilities for temporary shelter and any related humanitarian assistance for these 7,000 people. Turkey has pledged $1 million to the IOM and the UNHCR. Qatar even pledges $50 million to Indonesia for hosting Rohingya refugees. The Philippines, the United States and Gambia have indicated they might accept recognized refugees for permanent resettlement. Australia, however, has categorically ruled out resettling any people from this current group.

While waiting in Indonesia and Malaysia for either resettlement or repatriation as integration is no option, the Rohingya and Bangladeshis will be sheltered in a designated area and administered by a joint task force. So far, asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia have been housed in special detention centers. Since these have long been overcrowded, most are now living in special community housing projects administered and financed by the IOM. Available good housing options are rare. It remains unclear where the newcomers will be housed. Indonesian Minister for Social Welfare Khofifah Indar Parawansa has promised only AUD 200,000 ($146,520) for “trauma” help and basic equipment.

Amidst this uncertainty, Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, has suggested to house the asylum seekers on an uninhabited island somewhere in the archipelago while they wait to be processed. This plan is not exactly new. Given the mixed experience with the detention island of Galang – which served as a transit point for Vietnamese refugees under the so-called Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) – Indonesia has refrained from reviving such an option so far. In the late 1970s, Indonesia and the Philippines had offered one of their islands for refugee processing. Against the initial agreement to host them for 5 years the last Vietnamese left Galang almost 20 years later. Personal accounts of Vietnamese former inmates about rape and corruption differ substantially from the Indonesian versions about smooth management.

Despite its many shortfalls, the CPA is now increasingly promoted as a potential blueprint for a new regional ‘solution’. In many regards, the CPA was the first regional ‘solution’ for refugees from Southeast Asia, as it generated cooperation between the country of origin (Vietnam), the transit countries (Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand) and the resettlement countries (USA, Canada, France and Australia). However, definitions of what constitutes a regional solution are still vague. It seems everybody has a very different understanding of it. To a number of countries in the region, it supposedly means refugees should be resettled anywhere in the region, as long as it is not in their own country.

It is tempting to join the vociferous calls for regional ‘solutions’ – as has been demanded by Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia for some time. But before doing so, it might be worth asking what a ‘solution’ means for each of them. Does it mean preventing asylum seekers leaving their countries of origin? Or preventing them from coming to Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as to Australia? Or is it understood to be a rather long-term process that provides better protection for asylum seekers and refugees in the Asia-Pacific region?

If the ‘solution’ is merely to stop the irregular flow of asylum seekers, it would be seriously impaired from the start. Not only would it be naïve to believe that human mobility outside managed migration schemes could be fully prevented; it would also put the lives of those who have to flee in great danger. If countries in the region – and this includes Australia – are serious in wanting to protect people’s lives and not just their territorial borders, then it is about time to guarantee asylum seekers proper rights of protection and not just offer charity.

Antje Missbach a research fellow at the Department of Anthropology at Monash University in Melbourne. Her main research areas include transit migration, diaspora politics as well as border and mobility studies.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief