John Menadue. Regional cooperation on refugees, Bali and a Track II Dialogue.

Feb 18, 2016

I attended a Track II Dialogue in Bangkok recently to try to help develop a framework of shared responsibility to manage in a humane and efficient manner, displaced people movements in the region.

There is concern that the Track I Regional Dialogue at government level has not been particularly fruitful. So much of the response to asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people in the region has been ad hoc, fragmented and political.

The Track II Dialogue included a range of government officials in their private capacities, refugee experts, international agencies and people from think-tanks. The Dialogue was initiated by the Centre for Policy Development in Australia. It now has many additional conveners and supporters including from Mahidol University in Thailand, ISIS Malaysia, the Sydney Myer Fund, the Planet Wheeler Foundation, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, Qantas and Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

Australia’s successful participation in the Indochina refugee program would not have been possible without the cooperation of regional countries. There were several key elements in that cooperation ,one being that  regional countries would hold Indochinese asylum seekers in safety and facilitate processing. That commitment from regional countries was backed by a broad agreement that countries such as the US, Canada, France and Australia would assist in resettlement. This basic pact between regional countries and settlement countries was messy around the edges, but it worked. My experience with the Indochina program is the reason for my contention over many years that we need to build a regional framework or architecture to manage the flow of displaced people into and within our region.

But whilst the principles of that earlier pact over the Indochinese outflow are still valid, it is also obvious that no two situations are the same. Most of the asylum seekers from Indochina into South East Asia were in direct flight from Indochinese countries. Many asylum seekers in the region now are not in direct flight but are in transit. There are also many economic migrants in the region who are not asylum seekers but seek improved economic opportunities for themselves and their families. In many ways these displaced economic migrants bring an economic benefit to host countries but their status is irregular and precarious.

These regional countries face far greater problems over irregular movements than we do. For example in 2015 Malaysia had 272 000 people of concern to the UNHCR, Thailand had 625 000, Indonesia 13 000, Bangladesh 233 000 and Myanmar 1.5 m. Australia had 58 000 people of concern to the UNHCR.

So the situation faced by regional countries today is different from the situation faced by those countries at the time of the Indochina outflow.

But there is another major difference. A key to the resettlement of asylum seekers in regional countries in the aftermath of the Indochina war was that relatively wealthy countries were prepared to accept large numbers of refugees for resettlement. The US did the heavy lifting with other countries such as Australia, France and Canada. But now, regional countries cannot rely on this same degree of outside help in resettlement. As regional countries, we have to collaborate and address our problems together. That is not a bad thing but it means building a new framework of regional cooperation.

Amongst other things Track II seeks to build on the ‘Bali Process’ which was established in 2002 at the initiative of the Australian and Indonesian governments.   Australia then faced an earlier flow of boat arrivals mainly as a result of wars in the Middle East that we involved ourselves in at the request of the US.

There are now 45 member countries of the Bali Process, including key countries Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Australia and Indonesia are co-chairs of the Bali Process at both ministerial and official level.

The Bali ‘process’ has been cumbersome, ad hoc and fragmented. Australia has been a fair-weather friend to the region on refugees. When the Indochina program closed down in the mid 1990s, we left regional countries with responsibilities for many handicapped and disadvantaged Indochinese asylum seekers. After the Bali Process was initiated in 2002, we lost interest when boat arrivals to Australia fell away. In the recent Andaman Sea crisis, when many asylum seekers from Myanmar were stranded at sea, the response from ‘Bali’ was very slow. Many souls died of starvation and dehydration. The Australian government was asked whether it was prepared to help and Tony Abbott infamously said ‘Nope, nope, nope’. This was despite the fact that our Minister for Foreign Affairs was and still is co-chair with Indonesia in the Bali Process. Eventually the Thai government stepped in with support from Malaysia and Indonesia and the desperate people stranded at sea were allowed to land.

There is quite a way to go in the Bali Process to build a framework of cooperation. It is very clear for Australia and for other regional countries that we cannot manage this problem on our own. There must be shared responsibility and burden-sharing. We need to build trust and a structure that will provide dignity and protection for vulnerable and displaced people.

The recent Track II Dialogue in Bangkok made the following recommendations to the Bali Process Ad Hoc Group. 

The Track II Dialogue recommends the Bali Process Ministerial Meeting authorise senior officials to:

(a) review the response to the 2015 Andaman Sea situation, the resulting caseload, and ongoing maritime movements there and in the Bay of Bengal, within the commitments and principles outlined in the Regional Cooperation Framework (‘RCF’), to share those lessons among Bali Process members and work to implement necessary improvements; and

(b) Take a broader focus and, drawing on the RCF, make any recommendations necessary to improve national and regional contingency planning and preparedness to enable more predictable and effective responses on forced migration, utilising existing capacity such as in ASEAN, IOM, UNHCR and civil society. Recommendations should reflect the principles that effective policy responses require shared responsibility and distributed capacities.

The Dialogue offers to support the Bali Process in these endeavours to develop a more effective regional architecture over time.

These recommendations are made with a view to upcoming fora relevant to the Bali Process, including the UN High-Level meeting on ways to address large movements of refugees and migrants on 19 September 2016. 

The Bali Process Ad Hoc Group Senior Officials responded positively to the recommendations made by the Dialogue at their meeting in Bangkok on 2 February, agreeing to submit them to Ministers next month in Bali. The Co-Chairs of the Ad Hoc Group Senior Officials released a statement following their meeting, and referred directly to the Dialogue in paragraph [12]:

The Meeting welcomed an update from the Co-Chairs on the recent meeting of the Track II Dialogue on Forced Migration, held in Bangkok on 29-30 January 2016, and noted recommendations sent by the Dialogue conveners to the Bali Process Co-Chairs. Members agreed to recommend to Bali Process Ministers that officials be tasked to conduct a review of the regional response to last year’s irregular migration events in the Andaman Sea, and share the lessons among Bali Process members. It will also identify recommendations to improve national and regional contingency planning and preparedness to enable more predictable and effective responses on forced migration. Members reaffirmed the importance of engagement with the Track II Dialogue and other civil society, and agreed that the Co-Chairs continue such efforts to engage with key civil society stakeholders.

Government and non-government members of the Track II Dialogue in Bangkok all showed strong commitment to the overall process and to maintaining involvement to build an architecture of regional cooperation to manage and assist people displaced in the region.

The next two meetings of the Track II Dialogue will be held in Malaysia in September 2016 and Indonesia in early 2017.

The Track II Dialogue is already providing a flexible, sustainable and credible platform for regional cooperation and for influencing government policy. Good progress has been made, but a lot of work remains to build a regional framework/architecture.

What is critical is not the process of consultation but practical and humane outcomes.

Further information about the Track II Dialogue and its second meeting in Bangkok is available on the CPD website here.

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