Stopping the boats: in search of a regional ‘solution’

Stopping the boats: in search of a regional ‘solution’

ANTJE MISSBACH asks whether regional ‘solutions’ are the answer to managing the influx of refugees and asylum seekers.

It took the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand more than 10 days to finally come to a joint agreement that would allow the rescue of thousands of dehydrated and starving Rohingya and Bangladeshis who had been drifting in the Andaman Sea for weeks.

While Acehnese fishermen rescued hundreds of people—against the orders of the Indonesian military—to bring the number of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to reach Indonesia to about 1,300, another 1,700 or more managed to reach Malaysia, mainly on the island of Langkawi.

Meanwhile, another estimated 8,000 or more people were still adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits, unable to disembark. The sudden influx had been caused by crackdowns on trafficking networks in Thailand, spurred by revelations of dozens of ‘death camps’ and ‘slave camps’ in Thailand’s lower south, where the bodies of more than 26 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh had been discovered on 1 May.

Alarmed by the first arrivals on 10 May 2015, the three countries stepped up their maritime patrols. Indonesia sent out three more warships and a plane to control its maritime territory. Instead of allowing people in dire need to land, their boats were pushed back to sea after being provided with food, water and fuel to continue their journey.

Each government claimed its country was not the desired destinations of these boatpeople. This deadly ping-pong continued for a week, despite harsh criticism from the United Nations and its High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the international community, which warned that further delay would turn these boats into floating coffins.

On 20 May, the three foreign ministers finally pledged to take in 7,000 boatpeople and allow them to be processed in their respective territories under strict conditions. Indonesia and Malaysia have offered only ‘temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community’.

The UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are already overburdened with refugees and asylum seekers, so a lot of extra support will be needed to process the new arrivals in such a short time.

The average waiting time in Indonesia, from registration to first interview, ranges from six to 17 months. The average waiting time for resettlement is often even longer given the few spots available for recognised refugees residing in the Southeast Asia region. Resettlement options have further decreased since Australia announced last year it would no longer resettle refugees who had registered at the UNHCR in Jakarta after 1 July 2014.

The second condition to be met, if this agreement is to be fully implemented, is that the international community must take on all financial responsibilities for temporary shelter and any related humanitarian assistance for these 7,000 people.

Turkey has pledged $1 million to the IOM and the UNHCR to explore ways of organising a humanitarian aid operation to reach the Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea. The Philippines, the United States and Gambia have indicated they might be willing to accept recognised refugees for permanent resettlement. Australia, however, has categorically ruled out resettling any Rohingya and Bangladeshis from this current group.

Meanwhile, according to the three signatories to the agreement, the Rohingya and Bangladeshis will be ‘sheltered in a designated area to be agreed by the affected countries and administered by a joint task force to be established by the affected countries’.

Special detention centres

Asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia have been housed in special detention centres, and since these have long been overcrowded, most of the refugees now living among the locals in special community housing projects administered and financed by the IOM. Available good housing options are rare, so it remains unclear where the newcomers could be housed. Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, has just resurrected a mothballed plan to house asylum seekers and refugees on an uninhabited island somewhere in the archipelago while they wait to be processed. This plan is not exactly new and, for many good reasons, the previous governments decided not to implement it.
Given the mixed experience with the detention island of Galang (near Singapore)—which served as a transit point for Indochinese refugees awaiting resettlement under the so-called Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s—Indonesia had refrained from reviving such an option.

Definitions of what could constitute a regional solution are still vague. It seems everybody has a very different understanding of it.

Despite its many shortfalls, the CPA is now increasingly promoted as a potential blueprint for a new regional ‘solution’. In many regards, the CPA was the first regional ‘solution’ for refugees from Southeast Asia and beyond, as it generated cooperation between the country of origin (Vietnam), the transit countries (Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand) and the resettlement countries (the United States, Canada, France and Australia).

Long before the current emergency, regional talks about regional ‘solutions’ have been omnipresent. The search for such a ‘solution’ is one of the key tasks for the so-called Bali Process, a voluntary forum co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia. The 45-member forum includes the UNHCR, the IOM and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, as well as a number of observer countries and international agencies.

However, definitions of what could constitute a regional solution are still vague. It seems everybody has a very different understanding of it. To a number of countries in the region—first and foremost Australia—it supposedly means refugees should be resettled anywhere in the region, as long as it’s not Australia.

Along with these diverging views, collaboration—outside regular meetings and conferences—and a multilateral approach, as demanded by the Bali Process, have been overshadowed by Australia’s unilateral decision-making and bilateral agreements to transfer refugees to countries such as Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and now Cambodia.

It is tempting to join the vociferous calls for regional ‘solutions’—as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have been making for some time. Before doing so, however, it might be worth asking what a ‘solution’ means for each of them. Does it mean preventing asylum seekers leaving their countries of origin and also preventing them from coming to Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as to Australia? Or is it understood to be a rather long-term process to provide better protection for asylum seekers and refugees in the Asia-Pacific region?

If the ‘solution’ is merely to stop the irregular flow of asylum seekers in the region, it would be seriously impaired from the start. Not only would it be naïve to believe that human mobility outside managed migration schemes could be fully prevented, it would also put the lives of many who may have to flee in the future in great danger.

Waiting asylum seekers in Jakarta, next to the UNHCR office (Antje Missbach) .

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