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Hope in the midst of crisis: opportunities for improving refugee protection in South-East Asia

This paper was presented by Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, for a panel discussion on Refugees and Responsibility at ‘Rethinking governance in an era of global insecurities, regional tensions and rising nationalism’, an international conference hosted by the University of Melbourne’s EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges, 17 July 2017.

Thinking regionally, not globally

After 10½ years of leading international efforts to respond to the situations of displaced people, Antonio Guterres was keen to shift the discussion during his final months as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the root causes of displacement. In December 2015, two weeks before his term finished, Mr Guterres hosted his eighth and final High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, drawing together 570 people from around the world, including government and inter-governmental organisation representatives, NGO leaders, experts and academics, to discuss how collectively we could shift from crisis response to prevention.

Over two days, many factors behind displacement were discussed; persecution, violations of human rights, warfare, sectarian violence, militarisation, wide availability of armaments, statelessness, sexual violence, corruption, political violence associated with elections, breakdown in the rule of law, urbanisation, water scarcity, drought, natural disasters and climate change. As a participant, I found it a challenging dialogue. It was hard not to feel somewhat overwhelmed by a global discussion about many seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, there were many useful ideas discussed at the dialogue about the strategies needed to prevent displacement and some interesting examples of responses to protracted displacement, including the reconciliation process in Colombia, Turkey’s involvement in the Solutions Alliance and regional agreements on refugee and statelessness issues in West Africa, the Horn of Africa and Latin America. A clear lesson from the dialogue was that many of the causes and most of the answers to displacement are local, national and regional, rather than global.

The dialogue also confirmed in my mind that that there are not many regions of the world where displacement is being resolved or where it is possible even to imagine refugees getting access to durable solutions. However, one region where durable solutions could be possible is South East Asia. It is also a region where the risk of opportunities being missed is very high, because of the lack of political interest in the situation of refugees and a lack of political imagination about what could be possible.

Australia’s role and interests

Many of us in Australia who are concerned about issues facing refugees have been watching the situation in South East Asia very closely for many years. This has been driven by a concern that the Australian political paranoia about the movement of refugees has had a direct and very negative impact in the region. The Australian Government has pressured its neighbours into increasing interception activities for people on the move. It has modelled mandatory and indefinite detention as a government response to people seeking asylum. It has invested in Indonesian detention centres and in 2012 was planning to invest in detention arrangements in Malaysia until its “swap deal” was stopped. Over several years, Australia has been forcing boats carrying people seeking asylum back into Asia, both to Indonesia and to countries of origin such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Throughout the national debate about how to stop people risking their lives at sea in an effort to get to Australia, we and many others have argued that Australian policy should not be focused on punishing people who have experienced persecution as a way of deterring others who need protection. The longer-term answers lie in finding every avenue possible to increase the likelihood that refugees will get better protection as close to their country of origin as possible. We have argued that Australia cannot achieve this by promoting deterrence and detention, as these policies create greater fear and instability for refugees and force people to seek ways of moving on to wherever they can, despite the risks.

We must provide direct support to host nations and host societies receiving refugees, promote the benefits of better integration of refugees in those societies, increase our support through refugee resettlement and encourage other resettlement nations to do the same, and pursue every opportunity to promote peace and reconciliation in refugees’ countries of origin. As Australia’s greatest area of concern and its greatest potential influence is in the Asia-Pacific region, Australian policy should focus particularly (but not exclusively) on South Asia and South East Asia, namely the arc of countries from Iran to Indonesia.

For refugees in protracted situations, prospects for change begin to increase as the situation starts improving in their country of origin. In South Asia, a large majority of refugees are from Afghanistan where the security situation is worsening and, as a consequence, the opportunities for change are limited. However, in South East Asia, 87% of the region’s refugees and people seeking asylum are from Myanmar, a country which is seeing more Rohingya refugees fleeing from Rakhine state but where the process of political change is encouraging refugees from other ethnic minorities to think more about the prospect of return.

Opportunities in South East Asia

Since the 2015 High Commissioner’s Dialogue, I have been taking every opportunity to discuss the possibility of change in South East Asia with anyone who will talk to me – my colleagues in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, refugee representatives and leaders of national NGOs in South East Asia, members of the refugee diaspora in Australia and New Zealand, UNHCR officials, and NGO leaders, government officials and politicians in Australia and New Zealand. What I am hearing is more and more agreement that, while change is still out of reach, it is possible.

It is possible to imagine how all three durable solutions could be available in South East Asia to enable the majority of refugees in the region to find a safer and more secure future. While the situation of Rohingya refugees is dire and getting worse, it is possible to imagine the circumstances under which tens of thousands of refugees from other ethnic minorities in Myanmar might actively choose to return home.

It is possible to construct practical and sound arguments for why the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia would be better off with the refugees living and working within their countries having legal permission to do so. It is possible to imagine how resettlement states like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and USA might remain engaged in resettlement from the region at some level and use this more effectively to advocate for durable solutions for refugees who will never be resettled.

As the initiative for change is unlikely to come from any government in the region, civil society must get on the front foot and sell the idea of what could be achieved. We have reached the point where the interests of most nations in the region largely align with the interests of refugees, if only decision-makers can look beyond their prejudices and see this. It is better from the perspective of security, governance and taxation if refugees living and working in a country have permission to do so, particularly in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand which are net importers of migrant workers. Conversely, the risks for refugees are great if there is no concerted effort to find answers to their displacement.

The current suffering of refugees in enforced encampment on the Thai-Burma border or trying to survive as urban refugees with no legal status or legal form of income will continue indefinitely or, worse still, host states could grow impatient and in coming years pressure people into returning to situations where they are at considerable risk.

The region’s three key groups of refugees

As noted earlier, 87% of refugees and people seeking asylum in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are from Myanmar. According to UNHCR’s recently released Global Trends statistics, as at 31 December 2016 there were 274,436 refugees and people seeking asylum in the three countries combined: 111,457 in Thailand, 148,574 in Malaysia and 14,405 in Indonesia. From a variety of sources, it appears that around 239,700 of these refugees and people seeking asylum were from Myanmar – 102,607 in Thai-Burma border camps , 280 Rohingya in shelters or detention centres in southern Thailand, 135,856 in Malaysia (including 56,153 Rohingya) and 954 refugees (mostly Rohingya) in Indonesia.

This means that, of the refugees and people seeking asylum in South East Asia, about 182,300 (or 66%) are from non-Rohingya ethnic minorities in Myanmar, 57,400 (21%) are Rohingya and 34,700 (13%) are from other countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Vietnam and Yemen. It is useful then to look at how durable solutions can be achieved for each these three groups: the Karen, Chin and other non-Rohingya ethnic minorities from Myanmar; the Rohingya; and the much smaller group of refugees from other countries.

Building on small signs of hope

In February 2017, I joined Professor Yiombi Thona, the chair of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, and Evan Jones and Najeeba Wazefadost from the network in a two-day visit to Canberra to lobby Australian Parliamentarians about the situation of refugees in South East Asia. Our message was that there are small signs of hope which can be built on.

In Myanmar, there are political changes within the country, with the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to government in 2015. Refugees from all ethnic minorities other than Rohingya have long seen the NLD as their hope for political change. On many occasions in the past, I have heard Karen and Chin refugees in Thailand and Malaysia say that their long-term hope would be to return to Myanmar if and when Aung Sun Suu Kyi becomes president. Of course, despite her party being in government, the situation is more complicated than the future imagined in the past.

The military of Myanmar has managed to construct the constitution in a way which reduces the power of the NLD government and ensures that many of the critical ministries remain under military control. There are also many issues to be tackled before more than a handful of refugees can feel safe to return. Fighting continues in some areas of the country. There are large numbers of landmines in many districts. The land of many refugee families has been confiscated during their absence from the country and compensation measures are far too limited to be of much help. Work is hard to find. As difficult as these issues are, they could be addressed, with sufficient political will, resources and time. If these issues can be tackled progressively, it might be possible to create the circumstances in which tens of thousands of refugees may choose to return, not now but some years in the future.

In Thailand, the Government is working on commitments made in September 2016 by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York. The pledges included establishing a screening mechanism to distinguish refugees from economic migrants and a commitment to ending the practice of immigration detention of refugee and asylum-seeker children, as well as a reiteration of Thailand’s commitment to respecting the voluntary nature of refugee returns to Myanmar. In January, Thailand’s Cabinet gave in principle approval to a plan to implement a screening mechanism for refugees and undocumented migrants. NGOs are actively working to push for detention reform and for the development of alternatives to detention linked to the screening mechanism.

In Malaysia, the Government commenced a three-year pilot project in March to allow up to 300 Rohingya refugees to work legally, a very small but potentially significant step in a nation where the lives of the 150,000 refugees and people seeking asylum have been blighted by their lack of access to legal status or the right to work. In the first two months, only 40 people had joined the work pilot, because of concerns about the remote locations of the areas chosen for the work pilot, the harsh working conditions and low wages. It remains to be seen how successful this pilot will be but at least the question of giving refugees legal permission to work is being discussed. The Malaysian Government and UNHCR are also considering a screening and documentation initiative, beginning with a pilot project to document refugees already on UNHCR’s database.

In Indonesia, a presidential decree on the treatment of refugees was signed on 31 December 2016, providing, for the first time, a national definition of “refugees” based on the 1951 Refugee Convention. The issuing of the decree ended a process which began in 2010. Many aspects of the decree are problematic, including the removal of references to refugee rights which were included in earlier drafts of the decree and the role given to immigration detention centres in the screening of people seeking asylum. However, NGO leaders in Indonesia see opportunities to work on harmonising the decree with other Indonesian human rights instruments and to push for alternatives to detention to be used widely as the decree is implemented across the country.

Each of these steps is small and the reality is that little has changed so far for refugees across South East Asia. However, it is significant that there is some positive discussion about refugees happening in each of the four countries, a significant improvement on the situation several years ago.

Peace-building and repatriation

Repatriation to Myanmar has begun but, to date, the scale has been very small. According to UNHCR estimates, around 2500 refugees and 9300 internally displaced people have returned spontaneously over the past four years, while only 71 have returned to Myanmar as part of the formal arrangements between UNHCR, Thailand and Myanmar. Prior to 2013, UNHCR estimates that as many as 15,000 refugees may have returned spontaneously but this cannot be verified.

If, over time, it were possible to build the confidence of refugees that they have a future back in Myanmar, it could result in many of the 180,000 non-Rohingya refugees in South East Asia and the 17,000 in India returning to participate in rebuilding the country. If planned and supported well, it could transform the country but also bring benefits to many countries in the region. Such an effort would require a lot of international engagement and support but, with so many interests aligning with the interests of the refugees, it could be possible to achieve.

Conversely, a stagnation of the peace process in Myanmar and a stalling of any progress in the protection of refugees in host nations would leave the region’s refugees in a hopeless situation. A risk for many refugees in Myanmar could be increasing pressure from host nations for them to return home before it is safe to do so, just as has happened on a number of occasions for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. We know from the Afghan experience that pushing repatriation before conditions are right does not work. This puts people at risk in the country of return but also results in many departing again in large numbers, back into the countries from which they had returned. It is therefore in everyone’s interests, including and particularly the refugees themselves, for refugees to be centrally involved in discussions about the future. Ultimately, efforts to promote repatriation will succeed or fail based on whether refugees feel that they can return safely and build a viable life. People will vote with their feet. Civil society organisations have a critical role then in advocating and creating opportunities for refugees to be engaged in discussions about the future.

Role of national NGOs and the refugee diaspora

The national NGOs which work on refugee issues in South East Asia are critically important to the process of change. Not only do they play a vital role in providing support to refugees, they are better placed than any civil society organisations to work for social and political change within their own societies. The debates which will be most influential in deciding refugee policy in Thailand will be conducted in the Thai language by Thai citizens. The same applies in Malaysia and Indonesia: citizens concerned about refugees hold the key to change. From an Australian perspective, our role must be to do everything we can to support the national NGOs working with refugees in South East Asia, seeking their advice to inform our advocacy on refugee issues in the region.

The Refugee Council of Australia’s involvement in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network has enabled us to build direct links with NGOs across South East Asia and to participate in regional discussions about the situation in each country. Since 2015, we have also been providing small amounts of financial support to some NGOs and refugee community organisations in South East Asia because of our concern about the difficulties many face in being able to get sufficient support for their work. This support, for small projects nominated as priorities by the NGOs themselves, deepens our partnership with those organisations but also practically demonstrates our view that they are the experts in understanding the situation in their country and they are vital to the process of change.

The refugee diaspora in Australia can also play a significant role. Because of the close connections with people who are refugees in South East Asia and who are living in Myanmar, they are an important source of information about the situation on the ground and can share this information with decision-makers in Australia. In addition, they can build networks of support for refugees in Asia and lobby on their behalf.

In February, representatives of five ethnic minority groups originally from Myanmar (Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Mon and Arakanese) wrote to the Refugee Council of Australia seeking help in lobbying on behalf of refugees in South East Asia. These leaders have now formed the Joint Advocacy Committee of Australian Burmese Ethnic Minorities (JACABEM) which is now working closely with us on advocacy strategies. In understanding the situation of other groups of refugees in South East Asia (particularly those from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa), other refugee-led networks in Australia are important information sources and advocacy partners. We work with the Refugee Communities Advocacy Network and the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women on raising concerns they are hearing about lack of legal protection, detention, family separation, unaccompanied children and other issues.

Potentially strategic role of resettlement

The nations which have been involved in refugee resettlement from the region can also play a more active role in the dialogue about durable solutions. Over the decade to December 2016, 197,000 refugees were resettled from Thailand (104,661), Malaysia (87,704) and Indonesia (4,710) under UNHCR referral processes. Many thousands more refugees would have been resettled under non-UNHCR processes, including Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program and Canada’s private sponsorship arrangements. This has been a very significant sharing of responsibility on the part of the resettlement nations – principally USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and these nations can and should be doing more to push Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to respond with greater protection of refugees who have not been resettled.

Traditionally, the governments of resettlement states have been poor at backing up their resettlement work with active diplomacy on refugee issues with the states from which refugees have been resettled. Also, there has been little apparent connection between their overseas aid and resettlement activities. Because of the vast scale of refugee needs in the Middle East and Africa, it is inevitable and appropriate that resettlement from South East Asia will decrease from the relatively high levels of the past decade. This makes a strategic approach to resettlement in the region even more important, focusing resettlement on the most vulnerable and those with least prospects of being able to support themselves in South East Asia and backing these efforts up with positive pressure on host states to improve conditions for refugees who have no prospects of resettlement.

International pressure to address Rohingya crisis

The situation facing Rohingya is dire and there is no apparent reason for feeling optimistic that this will change in the short term. The Rohingya have been subject to waves of violence since 1978, with the most recent being in 2016. As a result, UNHCR figures record more than 275,000 refugees in Bangladesh and 60,000 in South East Asia, with hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya having fled often as refugees and migrants (often undocumented) to many parts of the globe.

The Refugee Council of Australia supports the many recommendations made by the Equal Rights Trust in its recent report on the situation of Rohingya in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, with the overarching recommendation being that the international community engage with the government of Myanmar “in taking immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine State, and long-term measures towards the reduction of statelessness, building the rule of law and integrating equality and respect for human rights into their reform processes”.

Refugee Council of Australia’s strategy

The Refugee Council of Australia’s strategy is to work in Australia to promote what could be achieved by a focus on durable solutions for refugees in South East Asia by:

  1. pointing to the critical importance of peace-building in Myanmar and how it could be possible to create the circumstances in up to 180,000 refugees from ethnicities other than Rohingya might want to go home;
  2. drawing attention to how practical and politically pragmatic strategies could be employed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to transform life for refugees, focusing particularly on registration, the right to work and freedom from detention;
  3. encouraging resettlement states to work together to ensure that some resettlement places remain available for the region’s most vulnerable refugees and leveraging past and present resettlement to push for greater sharing of responsibility by host states;
  4. promoting the need for refugee-led groups to be centrally involved in the development of solutions, demonstrating our own commitment to this by working actively with refugee-led networks in our lobbying efforts;
  5. acknowledging the key role of national NGOs in informing and shaping national debates about refugee policy, demonstrating this ourselves by using the expert knowledge of national NGOs to inform our advocacy and mobilising any resources we can to give practical support to their work;
  6. continuing to argue for much greater regional and international attention on addressing the crisis faced by Rohingya people;
  7. being actively involved in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and seeking the network’s wisdom and knowledge in guiding our understanding of how Australia can contribute to better answers in the region.

In summary, our thesis is that the key to change for refugees in South East Asia is international engagement with Myanmar, seeking peace for the Rohingya and a sustainable future for the refugees of other ethnicities who have longed for democracy under a NLD government. As confidence builds that change could be possible in Myanmar, the situation of the 35,000 refugees in the region from other countries can be more easily addressed by a genuine sharing of responsibility between South East Asian and resettlement states.

For many years, the punitive treatment of refugees in South East Asia has been a cause for despair and pleas to respect the rights of refugees have fallen on deaf ears. Change could come not through a seemingly unachievable region change of heart about human rights but through governments and civil society working together on practical problem solving. If this were to happen, in years to come South East Asia could be remembered not as a region where refugee rights of refugees are consistently violated but as one where a modest amount of imaginative political leadership resulted in pragmatic and effective answers being found for refugees, to the mutual benefit of all.

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