Arja Keski-Nummi   Andaman Disaster – Regional Cooperation on Refugees

Nov 26, 2015

Too often in Australia we go cap in hand to the region when we have an asylum seeker or refugee problem. When our problems pass, we lose interest in regional cooperation. No wonder the region often see us as fair-weather friends.

But our region faces refugee problems alongside ours. As a good neighbour we should help with the common problems we face. It is in our interest to do so as well as in the interest of regional countries.

On 13 November 2015, the Huffington Post carried a story that “Myanmar’s Rohingya could be the world’s next major refugee crisis”.  The story commented

‘After months of monsoon rains, it is sailing season again in the South Seas of Myanmar. Six months ago, the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority briefly garnered international attention when they were among thousands of starving refugees and migrants abandoned in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Human Rights groups now say a new refugee crisis looms, as members of the Rohingya minority are excluded from the dramatic reforms taking place in their country. Amnesty International recently warned that thousands more people could set sail in the coming months, risking a repeat of the May crisis.’

John Menadue.

See below a post by Arja Keski-Nummi on the earlier Andaman disaster.

The crisis in the Andaman Sea provides an opportunity for the Australian Government through our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as Co-chair of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking and Related Transnational Crime to give the process some teeth and credibility in the region. This is a good opportunity for us to help others just as they have helped us in the past with regard to people movements.

Five countries that are part of the Bali Process are facing a crisis that is drawing negatively the attention of the international community on the region; unprecedented since the Indo Chinese outflows of three decades ago.

Australia should be approaching the other Co-chair, Indonesia, to work with affected countries in examining what can be done to both tackle the people smuggling/trafficking ventures that are preying on vulnerable people in Bangladesh and Myanmar and how best to ensure the safety and security of people who have been affected by such predatory behaviour.  In its 2013 communiqué ministers “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian and protection needs in managing irregular movement”.

Now is the time to enliven the April 2013 communiqué of the Bali Process Ministerial meeting in which in its penultimate paragraph:

“Ministers recognised that the root cause of irregular movements in the region were complex and multidimensional and encouraged members to continue to work with countries of origin, including through development cooperation, to address where possible underlying factors which made people vulnerable to irregular movement.” 

This communiqué called for greater regional cooperation and work on:

  • People smuggling and trafficking. From the reporting we have seen on this latest humanitarian disaster a people smuggling venture has quickly turned into trafficking.
  • Development of a “protection-sensitive regional approach” – the aspirations of which are to have consistent assessment processes for asylum seekers, and where appropriate and possible harmonised arrangements or the establishment of regional assessment arrangements.
  • Identifying in the region the perceived increase of labour trafficking and how this might be tackled by working with civil society groups and business.
  • Working with countries to address the root causes of such movements

All of these concerns are present in the current situation of the people on the boats in the Andaman Sea.

We should with our Co-chair seek to convene a special high-level ad-hoc group under the Bali Process banner to pull together a practical cooperative action plan that would provide assurances to affected destination countries that the burden is not theirs alone.  This group could comprise the five affected countries, Australia as co-chair and the three international agencies UNHCR, IOM and UNODC.

Such assistance could include:

In Destination Countries:

  • Assistance with initial screening and identification of people with protection concerns or who are victims of trafficking. A multinational task force (comprising nationals of destination countries as well as other Bali Process countries such as Australia and new Zealand) led by UNHCR to undertake that initial screening,
  • Flying in emergency assistance for shelter and medical support with the agreement of affected countries
  • Creation of safe havens pending final determinations –where the burden of costs is shared.
  • Assistance with local integration in certain circumstances through regional social investment projects in housing, health and education services that benefit the indigenous communities as well as new arrivals.
  • Commitments to resettlement of recognised refugees over a period of time.
  • Greater support for return through assistance in innovative new labour creation projects through social investment projects and micro financing schemes.

In Source Countries:

For the Rohingya the solution lies with Myanmar conforming to international norms in relation to the treatment of its citizens.  While Myanmar does not recognize the citizenship of a segment of its population and actively discriminates against them through property, education, movement and marriage laws this situation will continue.  The solutions have to lie in policy changes with the Myanmar government. As Myanmar emerges out of its self-imposed isolation regional institutions such as ASEAN have the opportunity to provide a constructive environment within which Myanmar can address the policy problems of this issue.  Complementary to this an ad hoc group as proposed above could provide practical assistance to ASEAN in mapping out strategies for supporting Myanmar in improving the conditions of Rohingya in Myanmar.

Bangladesh has been a source of labour migration for decades.   Traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of people desperate for work where there is none. Overpopulation, corruption, lack of opportunities, international demand for cheap labour all play into the hands of traffickers.  There is no easy solution to this cocktail of misery compounded by a lack of political stability in Bangladesh. While the Bangladesh Government has created a legal and administrative infrastructure to combat trafficking – “The Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act 2012” and the “National Plan of Action for Combating Human Trafficking for 2012 – 2014” and coming out of these instruments established a number of different strategies covering training, awareness and education as well as greater law enforcement measures, the problem remains overwhelming. According to the 2014 US Department of State Trafficking in Person Report, of 215 cases initiated for prosecution in 2013, a total of fourteen people were convicted of trafficking.  There are no reliable figures on how many people were trafficked in this time but conservative estimates put it in the tens of thousands. Given these most recent developments, a Bali ad-hoc group with Bangladesh as an active participant can continue a process of working with Bangladesh in strengthening the strategies it has in place and working with civil society in the country in providing protections and safe haven for people at risk of being trafficked.

Smugglers and Traffickers – the raison d’etre of the Bali Process is to combat People Smuggling and Trafficking. Despite many countries in the region enacting laws against people smuggling and trafficking and the imposition of ever-greater penalties for smuggling and trafficking it remains one of the more lucrative and risk free ventures in the region.  Tackling this through laws and awareness campaigns while important is not enough. These loose coalitions of interest groups and syndicates are like a many-headed hydra quickly adapting and changing techniques and operations to prevailing conditions. Again the issue must be tackled at its source – in this instance most likely Bangladesh. The proposed ad hoc group could start the development of a strategy to support Bangladesh and other countries named in the US State Department TIP reports to strengthen its approaches against traffickers and recruiters and the victim of smugglers and traffickers.

This is a global problem, which will only increase, and we cannot isolate ourselves from it. While for the time being Australia may have stopped the boats – this policy is not sustainable into the longer term. It is in our national and regional security interests to help stabilize populations and to play our part in the region. 

Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary in charge of refugees in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

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