Handling the plight of refugees and Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) has often found the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wanting.
From the eastern shores of Borneo to Myanmar’s northern border with Bangladesh, millions of people have sought sanctuary from wars, civil conflict, and religious and ethnic intolerance.
The issue takes on an unwanted dimension when China gets involved.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Fearing pressure from the political and military giant to the north, ASEAN states tend to overlook international norms, particularly when it comes to dealing with Uyghur asylum seekers, usually from China’s western Xinjiang region.
About 200 Uyghurs are apparently being held by Thai immigration authorities in that country’s Muslim-dominated south, where they have spoken with officials from the Turkish embassy and accepted help from UN refugee agencies.
Human rights groups say ethnic Uyghurs face discrimination, religious persecution and cultural suppression at the hands of Chinese authorities. Beijing, however, insists they are terrorists.
In Thailand they have refused to talk with immigration officials who want them prosecuted and deported back to China for illegally entering the country.
Chinese embassy officials have also been rebuffed.
Combined reports say the Uyghurs flew south from Xinjiang to Kunming then travelled south through Indochina to Thailand where the 78 men, 60 women and 82 children were found hiding in a rubber plantation in the southern province of Songkla.
They had planned to board a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Turkey, long seen as a safe-haven. Now it’s the rights groups and the U.S. State Department, mindful of recent precedents, that are demanding the Thais provide protection under its international obligations.
Efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have gone ignored before. In 2009, Cambodia – increasingly a Chinese satellite – forcibly returned 20 Uyghurs to China claiming they were not legitimate refugees.
Malaysia followed suit in 2012 and deported six back to China.
But the ramifications are also much wider with the ASEAN Economic Community slated for launch by the end of next year.
People smuggling rackets out of Malaysia have flourished over the past decade with Kuala Lumpur becoming an important transit route for asylum seekers and economic migrants between the Middle East, Australia and East Asia.
They charge $40,000 from China’s Western hinterland to Istanbul and about half that from Iraq to the Australian coastline, where boats run by people smugglers are being diverted to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Arrivals in Australia have risen to record numbers, challenging the capabilities of Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai authorities.
The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the stateless whose parents and grandparents fled the Southern Philippines for East Malaysia are just two enormous blights that could be handled more effectively if ASEAN could produce a coherent policy on the issue. China will probably remain difficult.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt