This week, there are two significant global meetings that aim to address forced migration — the first-ever United Nations Summit or High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants starting yesterday, and Leaders’ Summit on Refugees today. These events underscore the fact that forced migration has transitioned from a recognised but overlooked global challenge to one that demands urgent action.
Indeed, a survey by the World Economic Forum released in January notes that large-scale forced migration is one of the top risks facing the global economy. The number of people forcibly displaced has hit a post-World War 2 high at 65.3 million, of which 21.3 million are refugees (over half of whom are below 18) and 10 million are stateless. Approximately 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day, largely due to conflict and persecution in the Middle East and Africa.
Convened by the secretary-general, the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants presents “a historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response” to issues of forced migration. It takes place at the highest level of governments, thus declarations and frameworks are to be expected. The Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, dubbed the Obama Breakfast by some, is hosted by United States President Barack Obama alongside the governments of Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Mexico and Sweden. There are three pledges that participating countries must agree to — (i) contribute more funds; (ii) resettle more refugees in their countries; and (iii) facilitate and increase refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion in society through education and work opportunities.
However, these meetings lack a focus on Asia, which could affect the ability of governments in the region to address forced migration.
First, the attendance of Asian governments at the Obama Breakfast is hindered by disagreements to provide funding, resettlement places, education and work opportunities for refugees (bearing in mind that most of the Asean member states are not signatories to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees). In terms of the countries most affected by forced migration in the region, Australia, Bangladesh and Thailand are attending, whereas Indonesia and Malaysia are not.
Indonesia’s co-chairmanship of the Bali Process alongside Australia should be sufficient enough to merit an invite, particularly as the Bali Process Declaration of March 2016 dictated a formal review of the Andaman Sea crisis and the creation of a new, regional response mechanism.
Second, the UN and Leaders’ summits aim to prioritise the flight of people from the Middle East to Europe. Indeed, one could convincingly argue that forced migration in Asia pales in comparison to the number of migrants entering Europe on a daily basis. Over a million refugees were thought to have reached Germany alone by the end of last year. In comparison, the Asia Pacific has not faced a crisis since developments in the Andaman Sea in May last year.
But the fact that a crisis is not reported does not necessarily translate into a non-event, nor does it indicate improvements on issues of forced migration in the region. For instance, Malaysia is no longer a transit country but a frontline state for refugees. Boatloads of people are still trafficked and smuggled into the country, as per the numbers of the Andaman Sea crisis (some 8,000 refugees and migrants).
Challenges remain for affected governments in Asia — trafficking networks operate across borders, both maritime and land; trafficking victims are highly vulnerable to oppression, exploitation and violence; intelligence on migration management needs to be amplified; and a mechanism to facilitate (and improve) maritime detection, search and rescue needs to be set up.
Third, although the scale of forced migration varies according to regions, the problems that affected states are similar. For instance, security risks posed by refugees (whether real or perceived) is a concern that governments in Europe and Asia face. The rise of xenophobic sentiments is not unique to the European experience alone. As the German government faces public backlash over the number of refugees that has arrived into its borders, so too has the Malaysian government over the Malaysia-Bangladesh memorandum of understanding to bring 1.5 million Bangladeshis to work in Malaysia.
Platforms or forums that focus on forced migration in Asia should, therefore, be consulted on recommendations. ISIS Malaysia is a regional partner organisation of the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration (the Dialogue), alongside the Centre for Policy Development (Melbourne), Mahidol University’s Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies (Bangkok) and Centre for Political Studies, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (Jakarta).
The Dialogue is a Track II forum for credible and independent policy ideas on issues of forced migration in the region. With a constant focus on building a resilient and flexible regional architecture, and better preparedness for mass forced displacement, the dialogue aims to advance workable solutions to forced migration. Members include government and non-government actors acting in personal capacities.
Such platforms must be strategic, in terms of the timing of its meetings and key focus areas, to produce the best possible outputs. For example, the dialogue’s second meeting in Bangkok was held right before the Bali Process. It presented an opportunity for the dialogue to feed into the Bali Process and contribute to the Bali Process Declaration (a formal review of the Andaman Sea crisis was a specific recommendation that the Dialogue made).
During its third meeting in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, the dialogue began its engagement with the business community to leverage private sector resources and infrastructure for support, and to ensure that businesses are not engaging in, and benefiting from, exploitative migration, forced labour and trafficking.
This will enable the dialogue to collaborate with similar initiatives in the near future, such as the Bali Process Business Forum (which is holding roundtable discussions next month to secure buy-in from the private sector to come into the forum as equal partners) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva (which is conducting a forum on businesses and human rights in November).
By the time the fourth meeting takes place in Jakarta in March, the dialogue will be in a strong position to monitor and support the outcomes of the UN Summit and Obama Breakfast.
A global crisis like forced migration necessitates a global solution. Despite the varying numbers of people forcibly displaced in different regions, the challenges that affected governments face remain the same.
Global meetings like the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees should be inclusive of all. The participation of governments in these meetings should be conditioned on their efforts to combat forced migration in their respective regions, as opposed to whether or not they are agreeable to certain pledges.
Platforms like the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration must be encouraged to continue. High-level meetings or Track I diplomacy and Track II dialogues should go hand in hand and feed into one another to come up with durable and dignified responses to forced migration.
Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin is an analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.