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TRAVERS McLEOD, PETER HUGHES, SRIPRAPHA PETCHARAMESREE, STEVEN WONG, TRI NUKE PUDJIASTUTI: Rohingya refugees and building a regional framework to manage refugee flows.

Part 1.  The Andaman Sea refugee crisis a year on:  what happened and how did the region respond?

The Andaman Sea crisis a year ago catalysed important policy developments on forced migration in Southeast Asia. Part one recaps what happened, and how the region responded. In part two, we discuss what’s happened since the crisis, and what’s needed to avoid similar events in future.

Twelve months ago, events in the Andaman Sea exposed the grave reality of forced displacement in Southeast Asia. This culminated in a crisis meeting between governments in Thailand on May 29, 2015.

More than 25,000 people had fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. Around 8,000 were stranded at sea. Around 370 are believed to have died.

The regional response was sorely inadequate. But, one year on, the region is showing signs it is determined to ensure similar crises are avoided.

One million outsiders

The Rohingya people have fled Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh by land and sea for decades. They are the largest-known group of stateless people in the world.

An estimated one million Rohingya live in Rakhine State in Myanmar’s west. They are denied basic rights and subject to persecution.

Bangladesh is home to between 300,000 and 500,000 Rohingya. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers only around 30,000 to be refugees.

Many of those fleeing have had no choice but to pay for their passage. In many cases this has led to exploitation at the hands of smugglers or traffickers. In recent years the scale and urgency of these movements have increased in response to growing oppression and violence.

What happened a year ago?

On May 1, 2015, a mass grave containing the remains of more than 30 bodies was discovered in the Sadao district of Thailand, a few hundred metres from the Malaysia border.

On May 5, three Thai officials and a Myanmar national were arrested in Thailand for suspected involvement in human trafficking. Two days later more than 50 Thai police officers were reprimanded and a clean-up of suspected camps around the country was ordered.

Interceptions of boats began. Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities reportedly intercepted boats of asylum seekers and pushed them back out to sea. This led to smugglers and traffickers abandoning boatloads of people on the water.

An estimated 6,000 Rohingya and Bengalis were stranded by May 12, most without food or water. Amid ongoing boat pushbacks, around 3,000 people were rescued by Indonesian and Malaysian local officials and fishermen, or swam to shore.

On May 19, the Philippines offered assistance to the Rohingya and Bengali migrants.

The following day, foreign ministers from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia met in Malaysia. The Indonesian and Malaysian ministers announced they would no longer push boats back out to sea. They agreed to offer temporary shelter, provided the international community resettled and repatriated the refugees within one year.

Thailand did not sign onto the deal. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar conducted search-and-rescue operations for those still stranded at sea. Thailand deployed navy vessels as floating assistance platforms.

The international community, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Turkey, Gambia and the US, subsequently pledged financial support for relief, processing and resettlement. Some offered settlement places.

Australia pledged A$4.7 million to support populations in Myanmar and Bangladesh. When asked whether any of the refugees would be settled in Australia, then-prime minister Tony Abbott infamously pronounced:

Nope, nope, nope.

On May 26, Malaysian police found the remains of almost 140 bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, in abandoned jungle camps near the Thai border. Police officials were detained on suspicion of being involved.

Finally, on May 29, the Thai government convened a special meeting. Fifteen countries and key international organisations participated. They offered an immediate commitment to protect those at sea, announced plans to develop a comprehensive plan to address irregular migration, and agreed to tackle root causes over the long term.

What the region has learned

The collective leadership of the Thai meeting during the Andaman Sea crisis was welcome. But a one-off meeting should not be the norm for managing mass displacement events.

Regional institutions and processes – ASEAN, the Bali Process and the Jakarta Declaration – were largely muted during the crisis. The lack of robust normative or policy frameworks to manage forced migration in the region was exposed. So too was a reticence to create “pull factors”, and the overall absence of protection-sensitive infrastructure.

Tellingly, the Bali Process did not have functioning mechanisms for senior officials across the region to respond. A culture of consensus and non-interference left ASEAN relatively hamstrung.

Bali Process ministers met in March 2016 for the first time since 2013. The outcome reached was significant. There will now be a formal review of the Andaman Sea crisis to draw on lessons learned and work to implement necessary improvements, including contingency planning and preparedness for potential large influxes.

Just as important, a new regional response mechanism has been created. This authorises senior officials to consult and convene meetings with affected and interested countries in response to irregular migration issues or future emergency situations.

Bali Process countries conceded individual and collective responses have been inadequate. The region is now in a position to broker more predictable and effective responses – even preventative action – to forced migration.

These reforms responded to collective disappointment over the failure to act last May. They drew on ideas generated by the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration.

Importantly, reforms have also occurred in ASEAN, principally through its adoption of a Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and its renewed commitment to share expertise and development capabilities on regional disaster response mechanisms. This will be vital as climate-induced migration becomes more prevalent.

There has been progress too – albeit limited – on root causes of the crisis. The election of the National League for Democracy as Myanmar’s ruling party has raised hopes the Rohingya people may eventually find a safer home in Rakhine State. And leadership from Indonesia in building schools there and continued pressure from the US continue to be vital.

Regional leaders have started making the right noises, but must continue to take concrete steps.


Part 2.  The Andaman Sea refugee crisis a year on:  is the region now better prepared.

If progress toward a “fix” on future forced displacement crises such as that which took place in the Andaman Sea a year ago was measured in the number of regional meetings that have taken place, it would be plentiful.

Since the temporary resolution of the crisis was announced on May 29, 2015, at the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean in Bangkok, there have been an unprecedented number of meetings in the region.

Where has this left us?

Despite the promise of the Bali Process ministerial meeting outcome from March 2016, the sheer number of meetings hasn’t translated to concerted action.

Meanwhile, not all commitments made during the Andaman Sea crisis have been honoured. And the global crisis shows no sign of abating.

A year ago Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to:

… provide humanitarian assistance and temporary shelter to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea provided that the resettlement and repatriation process [would be completed] in one year by the international community.

A number of international donors assisted the two countries.

Between May 10 and July 30, 2015, more than 5,000 people who departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh managed to disembark in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Between September and December 2015 embarkations resumed. At least another 1,500 people left Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Of the arrivals, 2,646 Bangladeshis were returned to Bangladesh. Another 1,132 Myanmar Muslims from Rakhine State and Bangladeshis continue to be housed in detention and shelters in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Of those still detained in Indonesia and Thailand, more than 95% are Rohingyas.

Indonesia’s partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to verify the status of Rohingya and Bangladeshi arrivals in Aceh and Medan has been commended. So too has a draft presidential decree on handling asylum seekers, though this is still unsigned.

But there are unconfirmed reports that a sizeable number of the Rohingya people who were rescued later disappeared from temporary camps, headed to Malaysia.

Conditions in many detention facilities and shelters remain fraught. Tuberculosis infections in Malaysian facilities have prolonged processing. And earlier this week, Thai police reportedly shot and killed a Rohingya refugee who had fled the Phang Nga detention centre in southern Thailand with 20 other Rohingya men.

The Malaysian and Indonesian governments have yet to clarify the status of those who remain.

Progress on tackling the root causes of movement in Rakhine State has been continually frustrated despite glimmers of hope.

The leader of Myanmar’s ruling party, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently requested “enough space” to resolve the issue at a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Yet, earlier this month, she asked the US ambassador to Myanmar to stop using the term “Rohingya”. Perhaps what Suu Kyi desires is “quiet diplomacy”.

On the ground, few changes to the plight of the Rohingya are noticeable. So long as human rights violations in countries of origin and the root causes of forced migration are not solved, the flight and plight of those people will continue.

Same old plan

The plan agreed to in Bangkok last May, to prevent irregular migration, smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons, was hardly revolutionary.

Countries undertook, among other promises, to:

  • eradicate transnational organised crime smuggling and trafficking syndicates;
  • strengthen co-operation between law enforcement authorities and complementary data collection;
  • establish key national contact points; and
  • enhance legal, affordable and safe channels of migration.

There was also a commitment to form a:

… mechanism or joint taskforce to administer and ensure necessary support, including resources as well as resettlement and repatriation options from the international community.

That taskforce has yet to be established, let alone convened, despite two follow-up meetings. Permanent resettlement places for those Rohingya who disembarked remain scarce.

What’s more, framing continues to focus on the “irregularity” or “illegality” of such movements, even though they are now routine. The focus cannot be fighting crime over developing protection-sensitive infrastructure. It can be both.

The most promising developments are the new consultation mechanism agreed by the Bali Process in March 2016, the creation of an ASEAN Regional Trust Fund to support victims of human trafficking, and the adoption in November 2015 of the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

A New York moment?

In September, US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will convene high-level summits in New York on refugees and migrants.

The recent Bali Process outcome, if used strategically, could provide a platform and framework for a more functional and enduring system to be put in place before the next crisis. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said:

This must not happen again.

Our region is now in a position to broker more predictable and effective responses – even preventative action. Such promise must be translated into action.

Forced migration is now a global phenomenon, identified by the World Economic Forum as the top global risk in terms of likelihood, and the fourth in terms of impact.

Despite the many efforts and promises made, no comprehensive and systematic responses to irregular movements of people, especially those in need of international protection, have been instituted.

Much of the focus has been on the Middle East and Europe, but Asian displacement is similarly confronting. Overall numbers of those displaced in Asia rose by 31% in 2014. Afghanistan remains the world’s second-leading producer of refugees. Climate-induced migration is expected to accelerate.

Unless managed more effectively, forced migration will have permanent and intensifying negative impacts on countries in our region and globally.

Experts around the world have begun advancing ideas for new migration pathways for those in humanitarian need, in addition to refugees. By September, plans for more robust architecture on forced migration will need to be more advanced. Countries in our region must not rest on their laurels.

Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

 Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy and Visitor, Regnet School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University

Director of the International PhD Program in Human Rights and Peace Studies, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

Deputy Chief Executive, Institute of Strategic and International Studies

Researcher, Research Centre for Politics, Indonesian Institute of Sciences

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MUNGO MacCALLUM: Rituals of irrelevance and distraction.

So we have at last reached a marker along the long trek to the election.

The Pre-election economic and fiscal outlook (PEFO) was announced at the end of the second week, which is supposed to mean just where we and our political masters see the state of the nation.

PEFO was, like all its predecessors, determinedly optimistic: there are problems, sure, but we can expect things to get better. Nothing to see, folks. But for once there is a serious caveat: it just might not work out exactly as the Treasury and Finance Department hope. And if it doesn’t, we are up shit creek in a barbed wire canoe without a paddle. Continue reading

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ALISON BROINOWSKI; Wisdom in hindsight.


Leaders who have presided over policy disasters typically respond in one of three ways. Some of them leave office and retire to their well-feathered nests, where they hibernate in silence. Others spray the blame around, including at those who advised them against the original folly, refusing to admit responsibility for it, and yet still claiming that the outcome was better than if they had not committed it, and claiming that now, things have changed. Others again adhere to the ‘never apologise, never explain’ school of public policy, refusing to admit they were wrong, and suggesting they would do the same again, given the opportunity. Continue reading

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TESSA MORRIS-SUZUKI: Obama and the absence of apology in Hiroshima.


As President of the United States of America, I express my profound apologies for the sufferings inflicted on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bombings’. These, of course, are the words that we are not going to hear Barack Obama speak in Hiroshima on 27 May, when he becomes the first sitting US president to visit the city since the atomic bombings in August 1945. It is sad that we will not hear at least a version of these words. A simple but sincere apology might bring some peace of mind to the survivors and their families, and could have a profound effect on Japanese society. Continue reading

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MUNGO MacCALLUM: Tax – in the eye of the beholder.

The dementors of Newscorps couldn’t believe their luck.

When the hapless Duncan Storrer rose to ask why rich people were to receive tax cuts while the poor, like himself, did not, the man ticked all the boxes.

He was obviously a victim, and presumably a whinger. And he was not only an invited guest of the one-eyed leftist ABC, but of its most unholy program of all – Q and A. And unsurprisingly, its gullible audience proclaimed him a hero. The man was born to be destroyed. Continue reading

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JOHN MENADUE. Is the Coalition better able to manage our borders?

For many years senior journalists have been telling us, or at least accepting the spin, that conservatives are better economic managers. I don’t think there is evidence to back that claim as several writers have pointed out in this blog.

The other area where many senior journalists have been even more gullible is the acceptance of the claim that conservatives are better able to manage our borders. Again I don’t think this view can be sustained.

Journalists are now under-resourced to do their job properly, but on an issue so much debated as border protection, they should examine the facts. There are three key issues which senior journalists should reflect upon. Continue reading

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Did the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki end the war?

Today, President Obama is visiting Hiroshima. He will be the first US President to do so since the bombing in 1945. He said that he will not be apologising for the dropping of the bomb and will not try and second-guess President Harry Truman’s decision.

The widely accepted moral justification for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that they brought a quick end to the war which if continued would result in more widespread deaths and destruction.

There is an argument that what the Japanese military feared most of all was not the bombing of civilians but the threat of Soviet occupation and perhaps partition of Japan. Continue reading

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PETER BROOKS. Mind the gap in doctors’ fees – it is all around us

John Thompson reminds us of the total lack of transparency in fees charged by doctors in Australia. Surgeon’s report shows the ineffectiveness of private health insurers to control health costs Posted on 07/05/2016 by John Menadue

So can we dissect this further. What is in a medical fee – well may you ask. When you go to your doctor you may see a fees schedule on the reception desk – or you may have received a letter from the receptionist / practice manager indicating that you will be responsible for certain fees over and above what you will get back from Medicare and ( possibily ) your Private Health Scheme . It is not unusual to be asked to pay something in advance before an appointment ( usually for a procedure – endoscopy ) is even made . Even lawyers don’t make you do that- do they . So there are at least three fees- what the Government pays the doctor – the Medicare fee , then there is the AMA rate – why this is different does not seem to be based on any scientific evidence , and then there is what the doctor actually charges you . Again not based on anything but what the doctor feels the market will support – and it usually does because effectively you have no choice .Do you ask for a second opinion ? do you have a discussion about the fee and why it is so much higher than the Medicare rebate or the AMA fee- when this person is going to put a new hip into you next week or open up your belly – I don’t think so . Continue reading

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BILL AND BARBARA CLEMENTS: Refugees and round-ups.

The Paris Metro station of Bir Hakeim, not far from the Eiffel Tower, serves both the Australian Embassy and a monument that was erected in 1994 to commemorate the mass round-up of Jews, brought to the Velodrome d’hiver (an indoor cycle track known as the Vel d’hiv) which formerly occupied the site. The Australian Embassy in Paris is built on railway yards across from that Vel d’Hiv site. Continue reading

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MARK GREGORY: Leaks from NBN were in the public interest. The response was designed to hide the NBN mess.

The National Broadband Network (NBN) was meant to be a nation building project that positioned Australia as a leader in the global digital economy, but it has become a political football and as every day passes, Australia’s future prospects in the global digital economy are diminishing. Continue reading

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