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.
As one of the worst cases of human tragedy since the Holocaust, in which a particular ethnic and religious group was targeted for their existence, the plight of the Rohingya can no longer be ignored by the governments of Southeast Asia. Several steps can be taken to address the issues and past successes show that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
The discovery of 26 bodies belonging to Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants in a camp on the Thai-Malaysia border in early May marked the start of the current round of Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis. As the Thai authorities continued their crack down on smuggling gangs operating trafficking rings from Myanmar to Malaysia, the number of camps, graves and bodies discovered only increased. These discoveries were efforts on the part of the Thai government to avoid a downgrade in an influential U.S. State Department annual report that ranks countries on their anti-trafficking efforts and in an attempt to shut down the smuggling route from Myanmar to Malaysia.
The graves contained the bodies of Bangladeshi migrants and Muslim Rohingya, smuggled by boat to the south of Thailand, many of them taken advantage of while fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Once in the Thai jungle they were detained in camps and told that the price for the freedom was 2,000 dollars a head. Some Rohingya managed to collect the money for the ransom, through family members living in Malaysia, but most were forced to enter indentured labor in order to pay for their journey.
The Thai government crackdown on the Myanmar to Malaysia trafficking route put an end to a lucrative human smuggling business but triggered a regional crisis. In order to elude patrols, smugglers refused to land on shore, effectively holding up to 8,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants hostage at sea without adequate food, water and sanitation. The Thai government used army helicopters to drop food and water to the migrants but then pushed the boats back out to sea towards Malaysia. Malaysian authorities in turn pushed the boats onward telling the people on board to seek asylum in Indonesia. The Government of Indonesia denied them access to its territory and pushed them back out again. It was only after tremendous international pressure that Southeast Asian governments temporarily agreed to permit the asylum seekers land on their shores.
Southeast Asian governments have been playing a dangerous game of “human ping-pong,” all the while claiming to crackdown on smugglers, and ignoring basic principles of international customary law. As the UNHCR report on irregular maritime movements states, an estimated 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis left the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015 and of them, 300 have been recorded as having died at sea.
Rohingya people are one of the most persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the world, subjected to forced labor, holding no land rights, experiencing severe limitations on their freedom of movement, and they are excluded from basic registration requirements giving them rights as citizens and access to education. They are a population fleeing systematic human rights violations by the Myanmar government which has stripped them of their citizenship under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law.
Nearly 1.3 million Rohingya live in the Rakhine State of western Myanmar, making up less than 3 percent of the entire population (53.7 million, 2014 estimate). In a predominantly Buddhist country like Myanmar, Muslim Rohingya minorities are perceived as “illegal Immigrants from Bangladesh,” not only by the community, but most importantly by the authorities. This contradicts historical fact, as the Rohingya are descendants of Muslim traders who may have settled in Myanmar more than 1.000 years ago.
The October 2012 Rakhine riots culminated in violent attacks on the Rohingya people with many of their homes destroyed. This directly caused the forced displacement of more than 130,000 people. Since the violence erupted, Rohingya have been confined to camps with little freedom of movement and lack of access to adequate food, health care and education. In April 2015, the government took some final steps in sealing the fate of the Rohingya. They stripped the Rohingya of their voting rights by rescinding their temporary ID cards, which was the last form of official identification extended to stateless Rohingya. Fearing continued persecution, most Rohingya have to turn to smugglers to flee Myanmar.
Rejected from all countries and turned out from their own, the Rohingya are not the responsibility of just Myanmar anymore, but of all Southeast Asian countries and the international community. Several steps can and should be taken in order to address this ongoing refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.
First, the international community should lobby for Southeast Asian governments to become a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. In Southeast Asia only 3 States (Cambodia, Philippines and Timor-Leste) are a party to the Convention, which makes achieving regional harmonization challenging, if not impossible. Countries that are not a party to the convention follow national legal frameworks and are not responsible to international norms in the same way.
Second, customary international law establishes the obligation of governments to respect the principle of non-refoulement, according to which refugees should not be returned to a place where they face persecution. Therefore, excuses made for pushing boats back out to sea on the grounds that certain countries are not party to international conventions on refugees cannot be seen as valid. Countries should adhere to international law.
Third, given the magnitude of the crisis, Southeast Asian leaders must question the principle of non-interference in domestic matters of neighboring countries in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. The ASEAN region cannot expect to realize the promise of the ASEAN Community without addressing the lack of a legal framework for protecting refugees in ASEAN.
Indeed, examples of successes that come about through greater cohesion are available.
In May of 2015, as a response to the crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea and offered them temporary shelter on the condition that the international community resettle them within one year. Thailand took up the call and on the 29th of May 2015, hosted a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean in Bangkok, acknowledging the need to provide basic humanitarian relief to stateless Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. The Special Meeting was attended by officials from 17 countries – 10 ASEAN countries plus the United States, Japan and Switzerland, who sent observers, along with officials from the UNHCR, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Organization for Migration. Notably, Myanmar, which threatened to boycott the meeting, took part in the talks but forbade the use of the term “Rohingya.”
The Special Meeting on Irregular Migration has been crucial for saving thousands of lives and is an example of how countries, when pushed, can be moved to act. It shows why greater regional cohesion on refugees in Southeast is essential. Still, there is much work left to be done.
Although the Special Meeting was a great first step in solving the crisis, the ultimate solution must involve granting citizenship to stateless Rohingya. The Rohingya refugee crisis requires a regional and international response. ASEAN should work with the UN to support a UN investigation into the government policies and human rights violations against Rohingya. Certain norms and conventions should be signed by regional governments and ASEA should come up with a regional legal framework to deal with its refugee and statelessness problems. The events of this past year demonstrate that there is a way forward. The missing piece is political will.
Silvia di Gaetano is an independent human rights analyst with an expertise on the protection of stateless Rohingya people from Myanmar. Ms. di Gaetano has been appointed Myanmar COI (Country of Origin Information) Expert at the Rights in Exile Program (IRRI) in Oxford. Previously she was a member of the Statelessness Working Group at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) in Bangkok and worked at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for Southeast Asia. The views expressed herein are the author’s own and do not represent in any way the position of UNHCR or the United Nations.