In May last year, Southeast Asia saw a massive flow of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh making their way across the Andaman Sea to Malaysia.
To be sure, migrants have been making the journey across the sea for years. But the scale of last year’s exodus was unprecedented, and thought to be sparked by the closure of the overland people-smuggling routes through Thailand and into Malaysia.
A humanitarian crisis unfolded as thousands of migrants were left adrift in the sea because the people smugglers literally jumped ship to avoid an ever-tightening vice around their operations.
Meanwhile, governments in the region, including Malaysia’s, and international agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), struggled to adequately respond to a high-seas drama that had grabbed the world’s attention.
The burden of receiving these migrants fell on Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, but there was initial reluctance to take them in. Part of the problem was, who were these people? The first conclusion was that these people were asylum seekers of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar.
But, mixed among them were economic migrants from Bangladesh. Telling them apart is difficult as they are of similar ethnic stock, and compounded by the fact that a sizeable number of Rohingyas from Myanmar are undocumented in the country of their birth because the government does not recognise them as an indigenous ethnic group.
So, the first challenge is to screen all the migrants and to sort out their claims. It bears repeating here that there is a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers. Economic migrants, of which there is
an abundance of in Malaysia, are people who left their homelands purely to seek more opportunities. Asylum seekers are seeking protection in another country but their status as a refugee has yet to be processed by an official body, the most prominent of which
Myanmar claims Rohingyas are “Bengali migrants” from Bangladesh, which, in turn, denies this is so and has been reluctant to do more for this group after taking in 250,000 people in the 1970s. Consequently, both Bangladesh and Myanmar say they are affected by this problem as much as anybody else.
The crisis raises questions on the willingness and preparedness of governments in the region to respond to such crises now and in the future.
Understandably, there were security and domestic implications that countries had to consider when a sudden surge of unskilled and undocumented people suddenly turned up in their waters.
Indonesia and Thailand are having economic problems of their own, and could barely afford the cost of housing, feeding and caring for these migrants while their claims of seeking asylum are being determined.
Malaysia has been grappling with a migrant inflow problem for years. And, while there has been much improvement over the years, up to two to three million undocumented people are thought to be in the country. There are also about 150,000 asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.
There were reports of boats being turned back while patrols in the sea stepped up to prevent the boats from entering territorial waters. Eventually, as international pressure mounted, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia relented. Malaysia and Indonesia had agreed to house 7,000 migrants with the condition that their asylum seeker status be processed within a year, while Thailand agreed not to turn away boats.
But, be they economic migrant or asylum seeker, the response to last year’s crisis was ad hoc and struggled to achieve cohesion at the regional level. And, with more countries wracked by strife while climate change is predicted to lead to more mass displacement of people in the future, experts believe the time is more urgent than ever to put in place contingency plans for these eventualities.
This was the focus of the Track II Dialogue on Forced Migration in the Asia-Pacific, which gathered experts and stakeholders on the matter from Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, New Zealand and Thailand, as well as international aid groups, to deliberate, in a casual and depoliticised atmosphere, on viable responses to future crises.
The dialogue will meet six times over three years, and the second meeting was held in Bangkok over the weekend, while the third is slated to be held in Kuala Lumpur later this year.
It will behove Malaysia to engage with such expert groups, as the country’s stability and prosperity make it a tempting destination for migrants.
The capacities to manage and screen the flow of people will need to be enhanced, as whether we like it or not, the region’s destitute and poor will flock to our shores.
Foreign labour contributes a major portion of Malaysia’s economic output, and it is common knowledge vast numbers of illegals work in jobs that Malaysians find dirty, dangerous and difficult.
This leads to an economic imperative to ensure that foreign labour here are not victims of trafficking. There are provisions under the Trans-Pacific Partnership that require countries to ensure workers are not victims of trafficking. In fact, before the TPP agreement was finalised, Malaysia’s participation in the trade pact hung by a thread as the United States evaluated the country’s efforts to fight human trafficking.
Malaysia has long had a tolerant attitude towards asylum seekers, despite them not having legal status.
But, this is not enough. If Malaysia wants to be recognised as a developed country, it must contribute to humanitarian efforts. It’s not just about economic development.
Note: The writer was invited to participate in the second meeting of Track II Dialogue on Forced Migration in the Asia-Pacific, which was convened by the Centre for Policy Development, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University; and Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia.
NST’s Foreign Editor Syed Azahedi breaks down overseas happenings