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Patient policy-making for a region on the move

30 October 2017

There are no quick fixes for a crisis like the forced displacement of Myanmar’s Rohingya, but a new collaboration has been preparing the way for an effective regional approach

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Indonesian foreign minister Retno Mardusi, shown here with her Australian counterpart Julie Bishop at August’s Bali Process Government and Business Forum, was the first foreign official to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh after the current Rohingya crisis began. Richard Wainwright/AAP Image

Indonesian foreign minister Retno Mardusi, shown here with her Australian counterpart Julie Bishop at August’s Bali Process Government and Business Forum, was the first foreign official to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh after the current Rohingya crisis began. Richard Wainwright/AAP Image


By 26 October, two months after the latest violence began, an estimated 605,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, including large numbers of families, children and pregnant women. According to UN secretary-general António Guterres, this is the world’s “fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”

This nightmare has arrived hot on the heels of what was already a global forced migration crisis, with the numbers of people displaced globally reaching 65.6 million in 2016, of which around one third were refugees.

It’s not surprising there have been calls for Australia to create a special resettlement program for the Rohingya, much as it did for people displaced by conflicts in Iraq and Syria in 2015, or when it offered “safe haven” visas to Kosovans and East Timorese in 1999. But jumping straight to resettlement runs the risk of legitimising the brutal efforts to force the Rohingya out of Myanmar. And nor is it clear that this is what the Rohingya want: initial assessments suggest that more than nine out of every ten want either to stay in Bangladesh or to return to Myanmar.

Last week Australia announced more support for communities affected by the violence in Rakhine State and for frontline agencies providing relief to refugee camps in Bangladesh. It was confirmed in Senate Estimates that the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, which Australia co-chairs with Indonesia, is attempting to broker a more coordinated response to the displacement crisis. Senior officials from key Bali Process countries, including Myanmar and Bangladesh, met in Jakarta in mid-October. They meet again in Kuala Lumpur this week. Australian officials visited Northern Rakhine on 2 October, and Chief of Army, General Angus Campbell, raised human rights concerns with Myanmar’s military in September.

Much more than a refugee crisis

Forced migrants – not only those from Myanmar but also from around the world – may or may not be refugees as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. They could be asylum seekers, stateless or trafficked people, or people uprooted by conflict, natural disasters and the effects of climate change. What these people share is a vulnerability that forces them to move, internally or internationally. As the past few years have shown, their movement raises complex challenges for governments and within national and international communities.

Consider, for example, Tropical Cyclone Mora, which displaced 851,000 people across Bangladesh, Myanmar and India in May and June this year. That’s more than three-quarters of a million people on top of the Rohingya crisis. In the Philippines, meanwhile, the first half of 2017 saw 563,000 people displaced by thunderstorms and flooding; at least another 350,000 had to move because of the conflict in Marawi City.

When the World Economic Forum, or WEF, released its 2017 Global Risks Report, large-scale involuntary migration was ranked second for likelihood and sixth for impact. The WEF was late to the party: between 2007 and 2015, forced migration hadn’t made either of the WEF’s “top five” lists, ranked by likelihood and impact.

By 2016, of course, the risk of large-scale forced migration was a reality. Crises the previous year in Syria, Yemen, and the Andaman Sea (where thousands were stranded after fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat) had broken decades-old displacement records, with the numbers topping sixty million for the first time since the second world war.

But what is especially telling, and somewhat misleading, is that the WEF still rates forced migration higher for likelihood than for impact. Yet four of the top five risks for impact in 2017 — extreme weather events, water crises, natural disasters, and the failure of climate-change mitigation and adaption — have impact partly because they result in forced migration.

Although the WEF has devoted much attention to freedom of movement as part of its mission to “improve the state of the world,” this has mainly been about the movement of goods and capital, not of people. The same has been true, at least until recently, of international organisations and agreements. Put simply, there is very little global governance of migration. Smaller, localised efforts deal with parts of the challenge, such as labour migration and human trafficking, but these don’t add up to an effective international arrangement. This gap contrasts with the long-established international rules for the protection of refugees, especially the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, of which the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is guardian.

It was only last year that the International Organization for Migration finally became part of the formal machinery of the United Nations as the UN Migration Agency. At the same time, countries agreed to negotiate a global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, alongside a global compact on refugees. They also recognised the intricate relationship between migration and the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Starting with the region

These global developments are promising, but the reality is that the best prospects for progress on migration, including forced migration, are at the regional level. Here in Asia and the Pacific, we can either respond reactively, by scrambling to address each new crisis as it arises, or we can proactively build a coherent framework to provide consistent, well-formulated responses based on regional cooperation, shared responsibility and distributed capability.

Calls for a coherent regional response have been central to critiques of Australia’s tough border protection and refugee policies. The argument runs like this: if Australia devoted the same level of resources to regional cooperation that it spends on offshore processing, then we could find a way to “stop the boats” by providing asylum seekers and refugees with options that don’t involve paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers and risking dangerous journeys at sea.

That might seem utopian, but regional cooperation is the best and most decent hope we have for making progress in that direction. This is why the Centre for Policy Development joined forces with policy institutes in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in 2015 to establish the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration. The Dialogue brings together government and non-government officials from key countries in the region with one goal: creating more effective, dignified and lasting regional responses to forced migration. It seeks to foster collaboration, facilitate a deeper understanding of regional perspectives, build trust between critical influencers, and cultivate a long-term policy framework to support the movement of vulnerable people.

The Dialogue’s organising principle is that that more effective regional governance of forced migration in Asia and the Pacific is both essential and possible. After five meetings, including last month in Manila, we are seeing real signs of progress.

But building a regional cooperation framework is slow, grinding work. It means forging common ground between competing national interests; it involves working with existing institutions, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which have other priorities; and it requires broadening the focus of current arrangements — like the Bali Process — to improve humanitarian outcomes.

Until recently, effective responses to forced migration have not been a priority of governments in the region. Nor has collective action. International rules governing the treatment of forced migrants have had few followers in this region. Of ASEAN’s members, only Cambodia and the Philippines have ratified the Refugee Convention and the UN Conventions on Statelessness.

A notable exception to the tendency to act unilaterally was the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action, which enabled the resettlement of a wave of refugees from post-conflict Indochina. But the CPA, despite its strengths, is an inadequate guide for our current challenges. It worked in a different time and a very different context.

The region’s inability to learn from the past and improve collective responses was painfully (and fatally) evident in May 2015 when thousands of Rohingya and Bengalis were stranded in the Andaman Sea. Speaking in Bangkok less than a year later, Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesian foreign minister from 2001 to 2009 and co-founder of the Bali Process, conceded this wasn’t the first time regional responses had been found wanting.

“We must admit that the region then — some twenty-five years ago — was not well prepared and equipped to handle that large-scale influx of migrants following the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia,” he told an Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration meeting early in 2016. “Ironically, neither were we ready to cope with a much smaller flow of Rohingya migrants last year.”

It wasn’t just that the region wasn’t ready to cope with the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis. The key regional institutions — ASEAN and the Bali Process — didn’t respond at all. The silence and inaction prompted Wirajuda to tell the Australian and Indonesian ministerial co-chairs to “step up or step aside.”

Glimmers of hope

But there are signs the tide is turning.

Late last year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a decree to protect refugees. In March this year, ASEAN’s Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children entered into force, followed swiftly by a 2017–20 plan for its implementation.

The Sixth Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process in March 2016 established a new emergency response mechanism and authorised a review of the region’s response to the Andaman Sea crisis. Its recommendations — which included the creation of an operational task force on planning and preparedness, and a commitment to greater collaboration with ASEAN — were adopted in Sri Lanka last November.

And, in August, the first Bali Process Government and Business Forum was held in Perth, featuring ministers and business leaders from forty-five Bali Process countries. A comprehensive work plan to tackle human trafficking, forced labour and related exploitation was released.

It’s easy to dismiss these developments as too little and too late. But they are a necessary start, and they share a recognition that unilateralism and quick fixes will not do. Governments acting on their own tend to produce problems of the type we are seeing on Manus and Nauru, along with the human suffering and trauma that goes with it. Copying strategies from other regions won’t do either. So much is clear from the relative failure of the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Each region, especially ours, has specific needs that require tailored responses.

Achieving the necessary reforms involves patience and resolve. CPD and our partners in the region are developing ideas and creating the conditions in which reforms can be advanced within a fractious and fraught political environment. The process is never fast enough, but there are no shortcuts.

The elements of a better regional approach have long been argued for and have often advanced. Sadly, however, there are no silver bullets; no elegant regional “solutions.” Partly, this reflects the deficit of trust, information and capability between policy-makers in the region, which has created a dangerous vacuum as the number of people on the move has risen.

In the absence of regular and frank dialogue, it’s impossible to know where priorities and perspectives diverge and where common interest might be found. You can’t plan and develop capability for foreseeable or unexpected crises. There is no line of sight for what might be possible within and between countries. You are left to nut it out on the hop.

Deliberations about mass displacement are inevitably sensitive and complex. Consider, for example, the crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh right now. A frank discussion should cover the prognosis for ongoing conflict in Rakhine State, Myanmar’s commitment to allow those displaced to return, and how those returns can occur safely. Alongside this is the further assistance required by Bangladesh authorities, international agencies, and vulnerable populations now in temporary camps. Victim identification and registration of those who have moved is essential. So too is an assessment of the risk of onward movements, including by sea, and the potential exploitation by people smuggling and human trafficking networks. Equally important is the possibility of integrating new arrivals within Bangladesh, and the availability of resettlement options for those permanently displaced. It’s no easy task given the sheer scale of movement, and is best advanced with the involvement of Myanmar and Bangladesh both at the table.

Waiting for rest of the world?

Hassan Wirajuda’s successor as Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, has stressed the importance of building regional consensus and not waiting for the rest of the world to step in. Speaking before the current Rohingya crisis broke out, he said the region had to break out of its 20th century “straightjacket”. Natalegawa said change wouldn’t come “by adopting declarations, statements of intents or treaties. It requires doing things and establishing practices”.

At this stage, there is limited public information on what actions ASEAN and the Bali Process have taken, or new practices they have followed. But there is enough to suggest that this time might be different.

The ASEAN chair released a public statement on behalf of ASEAN foreign ministers. Although it was later criticised by Malaysia, and ASEAN continues to attract strong criticism for its inaction, the statement was an advance on ASEAN’s more muted approach during the Andaman Sea crisis. Individual ASEAN members, including Indonesia, have been particularly proactive. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, was the first foreign official to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh after the crisis started. Specific actions, including assistance from ASEAN’s Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance of Disaster Management, were recommended by ASEAN, and accepted by Myanmar. Aid from the Centre started to arrive in Rakhine State in mid-October. The big test for ASEAN will be at its leaders’ summit in a fortnight.

The Bali Process, which uniquely has Myanmar and Bangladesh among its core members, was advised in September to use its new authority to broker a frank discussion among interested and affected governments and institutions. Senior officials met in Jakarta in mid-October for this purpose, with representatives of Myanmar and Bangladesh participating. This is a big step forward for the region and for the Australian and Indonesian co‑chairs, given the heavy criticism of their efforts in 2015. Senior officials will gather again for an Ad Hoc Group meeting in Kuala Lumpur this week.

Patiently impatient

These are baby steps, of course, and they only relate to this crisis, which is part of the much larger global displacement that has been going on for several years. It’s a crisis certain to intensify as environmental migration becomes more pronounced, and one that can’t be solved entirely by the Bali Process or ASEAN. The hard work has barely begun.

Indonesia’s Hassan Wirajuda has said that the absence of an effective global governance system for migration means that our region will depend solely on its ability to create its own regional order. He has called for a regional institution focused on international migrants. Non-government and unofficial talks will continue to play an essential role.

In fact, regional and “mini-multilateral” arrangements are emerging as a key to the success of the global compact on migration, which is to be finalised in New York next year. Regional consultations on the compact will take place in Bangkok next week. This reality is dawning on ministers, senior officials, international organisations and civil society groups. Waiting for the rest of the world to step in and respond to migration crises takes too long, and can be counterproductive.

As part of the region with the largest number of forced migrants in the world, countries in Asia and the Pacific must take responsibility for brokering responses to forced migration. As they are beginning to acknowledge, the most predictable, effective and legitimate responses will be homegrown. ●

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