A Universal Dilemma: Boat People, Humanitarian Concerns, and National Sovereignty

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Debates over whether sovereignty trumps moral responsibility towards refugees has taken on new urgency in Southeast Asia, as Thailand’s crackdown on human trafficking pushes traffickers to reroute thousands of migrants and refugees out to sea. The May 10 arrival of nearly 600 people to Indonesia—mostly Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and economic migrants from Bangladesh—was the first wave of an estimated 8,000 refugees who are currently stuck at sea. Reports quickly emerged that navies were towing ships back out to sea rather than allowing them to land.  While a May 20 emergency meeting produced a break-through agreement to temporarily shelter refugees already adrift at sea, this is only a short-term solution to an ongoing problem. Addressing the migration crisis will require both cooperation from Myanmar’s government to address the factors pushing refugees into the arms of traffickers as well as long-term international cooperation to crack down on traffickers and aid refugees.

As this crisis began to unfold, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand all engaged in resupplying boats and then towing them away, concerned over a sudden, unregulated influx of people to their countries. Sovereign control over who enters and leaves a country is an understandably sensitive issue, particularly in Southeast Asia given the region’s history of external interference from colonial powers and insurgent groups. The issue of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean citizens leaving to join ISIS and other terrorist groups—and the threat they pose upon their return—has only led to a greater focus on national security and border control in recent years.

At the same time, there is widespread humanitarian concern over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, including internal pressures from human rights groups as well as discomfort at turning away desperate fellow Muslims fleeing repression among groups in Indonesia and Malaysia. Supportive local fishermen in Indonesia disregarded commands to not help the migrant boats, saying that they couldn’t ignore human need and saving hundreds with their fishing boats. While policy-makers understand that an open-arms policy towards refugees risks encouraging more unfortunate and discouraged people to take dangerous chances of attaining a better life abroad, they are facing both internal and external pressure to aid refugees.

Uncontrolled migration by people seeking to flee human rights abuses or just seeking a better life has exploded as a universal dilemma in recent years: the United States was confronted with an influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border starting in 2012, most fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. The countries of the European Union face a flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, with 1000 dying in the crossing in 2015 alone. The civil war in Syria has forced approximately 4 million to flee the country, many risking the crossing to Europe. As domestic concern over the costs of supporting a rush of immigrants, Australia institutionalized the “turn back the boats” policy in 2013, towing migrants back towards Indonesia and refusing to take in any migrants who came by sea.  The established international system for dealing with refugees is facing extreme pressures: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that only 100,000 migrants are referred for repatriation in third countries each year, leaving a huge backlog.

Turning away boats just won’t work in the long-run: smugglers will continue try to land until the refugees start dying, the boats sink or they are successful in landing them. Refugees and migrants, not human traffickers, are the ones who suffer from these policies. After one boat of starving refugees was abandoned by smugglers and turned away by Malaysia, fights over food and water reportedly killed up to 100 people before Indonesia rescued them. While Australia has successfully reduced the number of migrants reaching its shores, the policy raises awkward moral questions and shows that the region’s policies are out of step with international norms: an EU constitutional court overturned the practice of towing boats back as illegal in 2012. Moreover, the practice of towing boats back simply shifts the burden to neighboring countries.

Malaysia and Indonesia have recently recognized the need for a change of tactic. On May 20, the two countries jointly announced that they would provide temporary refuge to up to 7,000 Rohingya refugees who are already at-sea and abandoned by human traffickers. This is a necessary and welcome step to address the current emergency, but it is just a stop-gap response that relies on support from the international community to provide food, shelter, and within a year third country resettlement.

The announcement also only affects the refugees already in the pipeline—the roots of the problem are Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s failure to address the discrimination, repression and stateless status of Rohingya Muslims. Despite international criticism, anti-Rohingya feeling and pressure from domestic Buddhist extremist groups pose an almost insurmountable public relations challenge for any candidates seeking the presidency in Myanmar, including the popular Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Bangladesh already faces severe poverty and overpopulation, leaving limited resources and will to address what’s viewed as a Burmese problem. But the lack of sympathy and collusion of Bangladesh in the trafficking of people with ethnic and/or other historical ties to the country has contributed to the influx of migrants, particularly as the human trafficking networks used for Rohingya refugees also create opportunities for economic migrants to leave Bangladesh.

Thus far, Myanmar’s neighbors have avoided public or high-profile criticism of their policies due to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) focus on “noninterference” and consensus, which does nothing to help the situation. Some have chided ASEAN as an organization for its silence and inaction. The current crisis appears to have catalyzed support for a stronger reaction: Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, publicly called for ASEAN to take a stronger stance on the issue given its impacts on neighbors, and Indonesia’s Deputy House Speaker called for a suspension of Myanmar’s ASEAN membership.

Malaysia, Indonesia, and other impacted ASEAN countries need to take stronger action to alleviating the situation. Partly abandoning the “noninterference” principle may be awkward for some governments, but Myanmar has in effect interfered with its neighbors’ internal affairs and created a serious regional problem by failing to stop the abuses that have led to the exodus of Rohingya. As ASEAN Chairman, Malaysia should initiate and follow through on regional discussions to spotlight the issue, and in these meetings should at least indirectly pressure Myanmar to constructively handle the issue. Well-reasoned foreign pressure could actually provide the Burmese government an excuse for addressing the Rohingya issue and partially shield the leaders from public criticism.

ASEAN must also address coordinated joint action against human trafficking. Some progress has already been seen in the series of high-level emergency meetings that have taken place in recent weeks, and this needs to be built upon through a commitment to better information-sharing and coordination among regional navies and more purposeful diplomatic engagement.

The international community must also come together to address the long-term challenges of supporting these refugees. This requires increased coordination between ASEAN countries to counter human trafficking, but will also require continued support from outside countries. Indonesia and Malaysia will require financial support for current refugees, as well as additional assistance to resettle refugees in third countries. The United States has indicated that it will take in some Rohingya refugees and provide support for search-and-rescue missions. Gambia’s unexpected but welcome offer to provide refuge for all the Rohingya out of feelings of Muslim solidarity is a start. But a change of policy by Australia and more engagement by the U.S., the E.U., other developed countries, and the United Nations is needed to address the long-term issues.

Follow Stimson’s Southeast Asia program and Stimson on Twitter.

Photo credit: Steve Gumaer via flicr

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