Why Southeast Asia’s Refugee Crisis Matters

The Diplomat launches a new series on the region’s refugee crisis. Here’s why it matters.

Why Southeast Asia’s Refugee Crisis Matters
Credit: Flickr/European Commission DG ECHO

For summer and fall 2015, The Diplomat presents “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” a series of exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. Launched with the help of former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan and designed with the assistance of students from Harvard University and Oxford University, the series aims to give the readers a sense of the various dimensions of this complex issue.

In our first piece, former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan and The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran launch the series with a framing article on the issue. 

In May 2015, thousands of Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State of Myanmar and economic migrants from Bangladesh were found stranded in the Strait of Malacca off the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. This was the start of the latest round of Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis. The image of the overcrowded, shabby boats full of people – haunted and hungry, faced with dwindling supplies of food and water – seized the world’s attention.

To encourage debate on this important but often overlooked issue, The Diplomat, in collaboration with concerned stakeholders around the world, is launching a new series today entitled “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis.”

Designed with the help of students from Harvard University and Oxford University, the series hopes to not only highlight the ongoing humanitarian tragedy, but also offer potential solutions to this mounting human security threat. Both of us are writing this article to lend support to this important project and kick-start the series, which will last several months and feature a variety of perspectives from engaged individuals from within the region and without.

According to UNHCR’s 2015 figures, Southeast Asia is home to more than 500,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. While the international attention is currently focused on the plight of the Rohingya, the problems extend beyond that group. The crisis engulfs the Kachin, the Shan and the Chin in Myanmar and also includes other groups including the Karen of Northern Thailand. Asylum seekers in Southeast Asia also come from beyond the region itself, with refugees arriving in cities across the region from distant lands such as Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Syria, Somalia and the Balkans. The recent deportation of 109 Uyghurs – part of a Muslim minority group in China seeking refuge in Thailand – indicates the serious and systemic nature of the refugee crisis in the region.

Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), refugees are categorized under the political euphemism “irregular migration,” a designation which includes both economic and political migrants. The recognition that these two categories are intertwined is helpful to the extent that it shows that a political solution to the refugee question cannot be understood when divorced from the larger issue of migration flows – including many economic migrants whose experiences are marked by severe exploitation and personal risk. However in practice, the combination of the political and economic has become a way for countries in the region to ignore the urgent humanitarian needs of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution as opposed to those who have migrated to seek economic opportunity.

The governments of Southeast Asia have failed to demonstrate any serious collective and sustained effort to deal with the decades-old refugee crisis in their region. Instead, a state of denial has crippled both national and regional political instruments. The result has been only ad hoc and temporary solutions, thereby allowing regional governments to avoid collective responsibility.

Furthermore, in Southeast Asia, the refugee crisis is a complex set of economic, political and moral-ethical, and humanitarian problems made all the more grave by the lack of media discussion or public awareness. Unlike Europe, where the refugee crisis is at times a highly-visible and fiercely-debated issue, there is a dearth of information and public awareness in Southeast Asia. The 8000 Rohingya precariously drifting in the Andaman Sea, without a larger context, becomes another media issue that floats to the surface and sinks with time. But we know that this crisis will surface yet again – perhaps with more severity – and that these subsequent waves will gnaw at our conscience over and over again.

As Southeast Asia’s refugee flows increase, the protracted and debilitating consequences of the current refugee crisis will only exacerbate. This could affect the fragile ethno-religious balance in many regional states – and perhaps even the much-touted ASEAN Community. There are many fault lines that exist within and between ASEAN Member States. And the fact that roughly half of ASEAN’s population is Muslim also raises the prospect that unmanaged flows of refugees or migrants will affect the region’s demographics.

The fate of these refugees in crisis – faceless and nameless; suffering at the margins of states – is often invisible and largely incomprehensible to the majority who live with the security of citizenship and other basic needs. This is despite the clear insecurity the crisis creates and the various global commitments already made to preserve human security – including bolder ones like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) adopted a decade ago.

As individuals concerned with the potential consequences of the uneasy silence in the region’s refugee crisis, we have initiated this series of articles to provide a forum where a range of perspectives and valuable insights can be offered and made easily accessible. It is our hope that this series of articles will at least begin to redress the lack of debate on one of the most important issues plaguing Southeast Asia.

The articles will address different aspects of the refugee crisis from a range of perspectives. Some will cover the historical roots and the cultural milieu which gave rise to incidents like the Rohingya crisis, stressing the regional responsibility for resolving them and outlining how this might be done. Others will consider more specific dimensions – be it the rights of small and stateless ethnic groups, migrant health, religious conflict, and even climate change and its effects on the future shape of the region’s refugee crisis. In some cases, the contributors to the series call for a new approach to the treatment of refugees in Southeast Asia altogether – one that does not view them and their impact as merely an auxiliary problem or a temporary nuisance, but as a serious part of everyday life for contemporary regional and global communities.

Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis is a complex and controversial subject, and we do not expect a consensus to emerge among readers as The Diplomat runs this series of articles over the next several months. Our goal is simply to spark further discussion among different stakeholders so that this issue gets the hearing it deserves. In sum, we wish to bring the plight of Southeast Asia’s refugees, displaced persons and irregular migrants to the attention of the region and the world. And in so doing, we hope to create the human responsibility we need to eventually bring this human suffering to an end.

Surin Pitsuwan is former Secretary General of ASEAN (2008-2012) and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand (1997-2001). Prashanth Parameswaran is associate editor at The Diplomat magazine and PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.