JOHN MENADUE. Failure of regional leadership on refugees

Sep 12, 2017

An estimated 270,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in the last two weeks. More will follow. Their position is precarious. We should not be surprised as the  persecution of Rohingya  goes back centuries. Yet ASEAN and Australian leaders have failed again to anticipate and respond to this human disaster. Ethnic cleansing is under way.

The UNHCR has described the tragedy. ‘The vast majority [of Rohingya refugees] are women, including mothers with newborn babies, families with children. They arrive in poor condition, exhausted, hungry and desperate for shelter’.

ASEAN’s non-interventionist policies on refugees  have been a major stumbling block.  In the political and economic field, ASEAN has clearly made progress, but on cultural, social and ethnic and religious issues, it has avoided responsibility. The Rohingya and others are now paying a high price for this non-interventionist approach. ASEAN failed dismally on the Andaman Sea crisis of May 2015, which brought tragedy to many Rohingya.

Yet Asia has serious refugee and displacement flows of people. Asia hosts the world’s largest group of undocumented labour migrants and the most refugees and displaced people of any region. It includes Afghanistan, the world’s second largest source of refugees to Europe. Many of the countries most at risk from sea level rises and climate-induced displacement are in  our region.  Asia is home to the world’s largest known stateless group, the Rohingya.

And not only has ASEAN turned its back on the problem. So also has Australia. The Australian government has not raised any serious concern or offered substantial help with the 270,000 Rohingya forced out of Myanmar. This follows only two years after Tony Abbott,  in May 2015, when asked to help at the height of the Andaman Sea crisis involving Rohingya, provocatively said ‘Nope, nope, nope’.

If we are to humanely and efficiently address refugee flows in our region we need a regional framework of burden sharing to do so. Both Australian and ASEAN leaders are failing badly to provide short-term leadership on the Rohingya tragedy or building a long-term regional framework to manage refugee flows.

The Europeans are showing much more wisdom than we are in their approach to the flows of refugees from Africa to Europe.

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Spain have just agreed to a new policy to grant asylum to vulnerable migrants who apply for protection within Africa, instead of risking dangerous sea journeys to apply in destination countries in Europe like Greece and Italy.

In a joint statement the four leaders acknowledged that they needed to initiate a process in Chad and Niger that would lead to the resettlement in Europe of ‘particularly vulnerable migrants’.  They announced that they planned to carry out ‘protection missions’ in the African nations in cooperation with UNHCR. The process would allow migrants to immigrate legally to Europe if they are on an eligibility list provided by UNHCR and registered with authorities in Niger and Chad.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European countries must clearly define which asylum seekers have legitimate humanitarian needs. She called it ‘very, very important’ that the possibility of resettlement is coupled ‘with an end to illegal migration’.  Merkel said Europe also needs to urgently rethink its asylum system which requires migrants to seek refugee status in the first country they reach. That requirement has put a burden on Greece and Italy, where waves of rickety boats carrying smuggled migrants have arrived in recent years.

What a break-through it would be to see Malcolm Turnbull initiating discussions with ASEAN leaders and UNHCR to discuss a similar arrangement – orderly resettlement of those in need, like the Rohingya, coupled with an end to illegal migration.

Burden-sharing and cooperation is essential to manage refugee flows in our region. We all face common problems.

Angela Merkel is again showing leadership that is so lacking in our region.

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