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