John Menadue. Asian refugees, the Rohingya and a regional refugee framework.

Mar 20, 2016

Despite hopes for a change of refugee policy in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull is faithfully following Tony Abbott’s path in almost every respect. As in so many issues Malcolm Turnbull is not there when we need him.

The exaggeration of our refugee ‘problems’ by Malcolm Turnbull and others shows up in UNHCR figures. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, regional countries face far greater problems over irregular movements and displaced people than we do. For example in 2015 Malaysia had 272,000 people of concern to the UNHCR. Thailand had 625,000. Indonesia had 13,000. Bangladesh had 233,000. Myanmar had 1.5 million. Australia had 58,000 people of concern to the UNHCR.

Regional countries are carrying a much greater burden than we are but our leaders choose to ignore that fact. Regional countries are also finding, as we have found, that we will never effectively and humanely manage displaced people by our own efforts. No country, including Australia, can do it alone. We need a framework of cooperation where we help solve each other’s problems and share the burden. As good regional citizens there is no other way.

In addition to the large number of people of concern to the UNHCR in our region, it is necessary to anticipate likely future flows of displaced people. This is likely to occur as a result of rising sea levels and the possible displacement of millions of people in our region, not only in the Pacific but also in low-lying countries like Bangladesh. We will be asked to help. Will we suitably respond?

We plan in advance for the management of national disasters such as cyclones. We also need to consider scenarios in the future when there will be large movements of displaced people in desperate need of assistance. We should plan and resource for such emergencies.

There are also significant ethnic minorities in our region that are particularly vulnerable, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar. For example in May last year Rohingyan and Bangladesh migrants were stranded at sea. Hundreds died of starvation and dehydration. Asked to help, Tony Abbott infamously said “Nope, nope, nope”. Malaysia eventually agreed to provide temporary shelter to those who arrived in Malaysia. The majority of Bangladeshi migrant workers have since been repatriated. Malaysia has agreed to allow Rohingyas in need of protection to stay, on the condition that they will be resettled within a year. They are still in detention.

I have set out below extracts from a working paper on the plight of the Rohingya prepared for the Track II Dialogue in Bangkok recently.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group living mainly in Myanmar. Rohingya are thought to be descended from Muslim traders who settled there more than 1,000 years ago. Nearly 1.3 million Rohingya live in the Rakhine State of western Myanmar, making up less than 3 per cent of the entire population (53.7 million, 2014 estimate) In a predominantly Buddhist country like Myanmar, Muslim Rohingya minorities are perceived, by the community and authorities, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Government of Myanmar denies them citizenship and they are excluded from basic registration. Therefore, they hold no land rights, are subjected to forced labour, experience limitations on their freedom of movement and travel, and have little access to education and healthcare. In addition to legal discrimination, Rohingya people face systematic persecution in the community by the Buddhist majority. 

For many years, Rohingya have been taking dangerous journeys by sea, in pursuit of a better life. However in the past several years the scale and urgency of this movement has increased in response to growing oppression and violence. Rohingya make up the vast majority of the more than 150,000 people who have fled across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea over the past 3 years, according to UNHCR estimates. In the first 3 months of 2015, 27,000 people left Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. About 300 died of starvation, dehydration, or beating by smugglers. Upon arrival in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, people have faced detention, lack of assistance and protection concern.

In Bangladesh, most Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar are denied refugee status by the authorities. An estimated 30,000 Rohingya live in official camps, where they are assisted by aid agencies, and another 200,000 reside in unofficial camps or in Bangladeshi villages where they get little or no humanitarian assistance and almost no protection from human rights abuse. As of the end of September 2015, UNHCR has registered 50,030 Rohingyas in Malaysia, however the real number of Myanmar Muslim immigrants in Malaysia could be much higher. In Thailand, 76,000 refugees were registered by UNHCR in 2014The number of Rohingya living in Thailand is estimated to be 3,000. 

Human rights violations are a root cause of Rohingya movement and abuses against Rohingya migrants is a common feature during all points of their journey and at the destination. 

The management of Rohingya forced migrant flows in the Asia-Pacific would have been more effective had there been an ongoing, focused and coordinated approach in the region, underpinned by consistent policy and legal frameworks. There are three key lessons to emerge from the case study analysis spanning root causes, national responses and regional frameworks and architecture. Each of these key lessons is expanded upon further below. 

In the case of Rohingya movements, addressing the root causes remains a key issue. The circumstances of Rohingya living in Myanmar, including the seeming intractability of their statelessness, is discussed in bilateral and multilateral meetings, although few ASEAN countries are working directly with Myanmar on the root causes to Rohingya forced migration. The key barrier has been the fear of inappropriate interference in internal affairs in Myanmar. This in turn reflects on a general unwillingness among all States in the region to expose sensitive domestic issues to external scrutiny. 

The absence of any concerted regional or broader international pressure on Myanmar to reach any satisfactory settlement on a secure future for Rohingyas, in partnership with Bangladesh, means that displacement, including forced migration from Myanmar, will inevitably continue. This will have ongoing adverse consequences for the individuals affected as well as transit and destination countries.

In the absence of any effective stabilisation measures, there is potential for much higher levels of displacement of Rohingyas into the region. 

Most ASEAN nations are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. There is also a lack of comprehensive and robust national legal or policy frameworks to manage forced migration, leading to short-term responses and ad hoc policy. Despite humanitarian and protection focussed responses at times, issues of forced migration, including movements of the Rohingya, have increasingly been perceived through a national security lens by many states in SE Asia. There has been a criminalisation of forced migration and an increasing use of immigration law to deal with forced migrants. This has lead to arrests, detention and the denial of rights to social services and livelihoods across much of the region. 

There is a common fear amongst transit and destination states of creating ‘pull factors’ whereby humanitarian or protection focussed responses effectively act as inducements for people to move. Specifically, there is a fear of the 1 million Rohingya who are still in Myanmar, in difficult circumstances, as well as the 500,000 in Bangladesh .Historically, comprehensive policy and program packages dealing with the full gamut of forced migration issues – from root causes to durable solutions – put forward by international agencies, have been rejected or ignored by states. 

State responses to the ongoing flows of people are therefore unpredictable and are in some cases unacceptable in humanitarian terms. 

At the regional level, discussions have generally been held without conclusion or significant action. 

There is no ongoing regional process to deal actively and cooperatively with prevention, root causes, reception and treatment of Rohingya displacement, meaning that ad hoc solutions have to be hastily reinvented on an individual basis as particular crises in the ongoing movement occur.Insufficient attention has been paid to addressing the root causes of the Rohingya movements, which will continue and potentially increase in the future. Due to some gaps in the frameworks and capacities of national governments, their responses to Rohingya flows can be characterised as unpredictable and inconsistent. Regional stakeholders do not currently have a standard or timely method for coming together to deal with such forced migrant flows. 

In response to each manifestation, the solution is reinvented. Unless something different is set up in the region, that reinvention will continue. 

There is a key opportunity to adapt and build on regional architecture to enable it to respond effectively and proactively to the forced migration flows of the future as well as current flows. A regional approach will need to be comprehensive, addressing root causes, committing to the principle of distributed capabilities, respecting the interests of states and responding to mass displacement in a timely and effective way. 

Regional efforts to combat trafficking in persons, such as the recently adopted ASEAN Trafficking Convention, can provide motivation and tools to tackle aspects of the Rohingya movements. Complementary national capacities and policies can be bolstered, consistent with regional frameworks and strategies. The opportunities of regional agreements should be maximised in the pursuit of other migration pathways, including labour migration. 

The full paper prepared for the Track 11 Dialogue can be found at


We cannot turn our back on the plight of the Rohingya and say that it is someone else’s problem. That is precisely what we did in the May 2015 emergency. It is also counter-productive if we want to build a cooperative framework or architecture to address likely, perhaps certain, flows of refugees in our region in the years ahead.

The root causes of the Rohingya exodus are not being addressed. Action to date has been ‘unpredictable and inconsistent’. The exodus from Myanmar will resume in the future.

In such situations it is possible for intelligence and other agencies to forecast likely refugee movements. These agencies should be tasked to do so in order that governments can make preliminary preparations. When the exodus of refugees occurs it is often too late or impossible to adequately respond. Our region should be better prepared and Ministers, aware of possibilities should instruct officials to plan for possible refugee flows, including the Rohingya.

What is certain is that these flows will occur and occur more frequently.

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