Refugees Left Stranded by Southeast Asia Amid Covid-19

Refugees Left Stranded by Southeast Asia Amid Covid-19
Photo Credit:AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

As governments impose strict border controls to contain the spread of Covid-19, asylum seekers and refugees are stranded at sea.

By Carly Gordyn

Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting asylum seekers and refugees. It threatens safe resettlement pathways and the health security of those in overcrowded and under-resourced camps. It also threatens the economic safety of those in precarious employment wherever they are in their journey, including those that have already found refuge or resettlement.

The pandemic also represents a major test for regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. States have responded by enacting even stricter controls on border movements, including intercepting and returning boats at sea. As governments focus on their own domestic priorities, the pandemic is revealing weaknesses in regional cooperation arising from two underlying causes: a lack of formal regional commitment to managing asylum seeker movement and an insistence on approaching these movements through a security rather than a humanitarian lens.

The pandemic has highlighted the general lack of regional cooperation on refugee and asylum seeker issues in Southeast Asia. Few states have ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and, unlike other regional fora, there remains no agreed upon principles or standards for protection within ASEAN. This leaves it up to states to respond in ways that suit them.

The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (the Bali Process) had slowly begun to fill this gap over the last decade. It was established by co-chairs Australia and Indonesia in 2002 to bring together countries of origin, transit, and destination to engage in policy dialogue, information-sharing, and capacity building to strengthen border control and curb irregular migration.

The Bali Process pays most attention to smuggling, trafficking, and crime, focusing on border controls, visas, and documentation fraud, as well as on policing interventions to prevent irregular migration. This means that the way in which people cross borders has become the focus of policy at the expense of the needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

There has been a gradual shift towards protection in the last decade. In 2011, the Bali Process endorsed a ‘Regional Cooperation Framework,’ which offers a ‘win-win’ alternative to counter-smuggling efforts and includes protection sensitive migration management practices. A regional support office was established in 2012 to support its work. In 2016, the Bali Process took another step and adopted a declaration that recognizes the importance of ‘victim-centered and protection-sensitive strategies,’ with strict respect for the principle of non-refoulement and the ‘need for comprehensive and long-term solutions for mixed migration flows, which by definition can include refugees, and irregular migrants.’

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Photo Credit:AP / TPG Images
A wooden boat carries suspected Rohingya migrants detained in Malaysian territorial waters off the island of Langkawi, Malaysia, April 5, 2020.

The limitations of the Bali Process were seen during the Andaman Sea Crisis in 2015, during which 8000 people fleeing Myanmar by boat were stranded at sea. It was up to the foreign ministers of Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia to establish cooperation to deal with the asylum seekers. No action was taken by the Bali Process.

The delayed and ineffective responses to the Andaman Sea Crisis — and the public outcry — forced the Bali Process to recognize the need for an urgent, collective response to regional challenges of this kind. The Bali Process created a consultation mechanism designed to convene discussions in response to urgent migration events in the region. It further established a Task Force on Planning and Preparedness to complement and promote greater coordination among existing national-level and regional emergency response mechanisms. This includes the delivery of a Tabletop Exercise on Irregular and Mixed Migration Movements.

These developments seem to represent a positive movement towards regional action and more thought for asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection. But Covid-19 threatens to undo this trend as states resist acting within the framework or triggering the consultation mechanism.

In June 2020, hundreds of Rohingya were stranded at sea for around four months after being denied entry into Malaysia and Thailand due to Covid-19 restrictions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Australia and Indonesia to activate the consultation mechanism. Australia resisted the call, maintaining the Bali Process exists for information sharing and policy dialogue alone. Meanwhile, some refugees were brought ashore by local Acehnese fishermen and given emergency assistance.

In September 2020, almost 300 Rohingya refugees were rescued off Aceh after surviving seven months at sea. They were repeatedly denied disembarkation. At least 30 died during the journey. The UNHCR Director for Asia and the Pacific was critical of the failure of the Bali Process ‘as the only existing regional coordination mechanism able to convene states on such maritime movements … to deliver comprehensive, regional action to predictably save lives through rescue and disembarkation.’ Yet there has been no collective response as fears of Covid-19 are used to push boats back to sea.

The gains made by the Bali Process in recent years must continue, even as governments enact health measures at borders. Asylum seekers can be screened, quarantined, and protected. But as a securitized process that began in an effort to stop refugee boats arriving in Australia, the Bali Process remains unlikely to put humanitarian ideals at the center of its approach.

The current lack of cooperation in the face of Covid-19 reveals the weaknesses of an organization founded on a securitized view of people movements. If regional action was instead motivated by humanitarian ideals, then governments could step up more easily to assist vulnerable asylum seekers.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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