27 Apr The Rohingya Refugee Crisis in the South and Southeast Asian Region: A Call for Regional Coordination
[Nandini Shinde is a Catalyst for Change Fellow at Migration and Asylum Project, an initiative of the Ara Trust, where she works as a legal representative for refugees in their refugee status determination. She has a background in international criminal and humanitarian law.
Radhika Goyal is a Policy Associate with Accountability Counsel where she advocates for international financial institutions to be more accountable to the communities they impact. She has previously worked with forcibly displaced populations.]
Six years into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, where 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar for safety, the Rohingya refugee crisis has become a ‘protracted situation’ according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) given definition. Various efforts have been made by the international community in the past years to settle the issue, including recent efforts at repatriation despite the lack of safe conditions in Myanmar. But without a sustainable solution in sight, the Rohingya community continues to live in uncertainty as refugees in countries around the world, particularly in South and Southeast Asian States including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, India and Thailand.
A uniting factor in this region is the non-ratification of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, resulting in ad-hoc policies that govern refugee status and protection. Countries in the region have adopted different responses towards the Rohingya refugee crisis. The States’ varied response has also resulted in a lack of uniformity in the strategy adopted by country specific UN agencies working on this issue; while Bangladesh co-leads the Joint Response Plan, which coordinates aid by multiple agencies including UNHCR, IOM and UNFPA, Thailand does not allow UNHCR to even conduct the refugee status determination process. Depending on the country of asylum, Rohingyas face a variety of protection concerns related to livelihood, education, health, legal and other related challenges.
This article sheds light on key challenges faced by Rohingyas in the region. It proposes a regional response mechanism to address protection concerns in individual host States and plan for realistic durable solutions. Further, host States are urged to call for the launch of a global Support Platform in the upcoming Global Refugee Forum in December 2023, to promote international responsibility sharing and boost regional coordination.
Rohingya Experiences in the South and Southeast Asian Region
Access to Asylum and Legal Status
Despite the international recognition of the grave crimes committed against the Rohingya community in Myanmar, there is no surety of access to asylum upon entry in many of the States in the region. Moreover, States have established ad hoc and temporary mechanisms to regulate the legal status of refugees. Today, Bangladesh conducts a joint registration exercise with international organizations, yet fails to recognize Rohingyas as refugees and instead categorises them as Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Rohingyas in Malaysia are considered to be “illegal immigrants” upon entry and live under the threat of detention, though UNHCR does provide them refugee cards on contact. Other States like Thailand have either summarily detained refugees or adopted a concerning pushback policy, redirecting refugees towards other host States.
It is imperative that States in the region provide asylum to the Rohingyas, regularize their legal status as refugees and consequently extend protection to their rights. Though these States are not bound by the Refugee Conventions to protect refugee rights (as they are not parties to them), international human rights law and customary law oblige all States to uphold human rights that are essential to the survival, dignity and well-being of all people in their jurisdiction.
Advocacy measures in these States by civil society or even UN agencies have so far been unable to create meaningful change in their refugee response. In this context, a regional response mechanism, with global support, can build international pressure and encourage State-to-State dialogues, that promote equitable responsibility sharing based on State capacity to host refugees. Global support can also alleviate the financial burden on the developing host States, while also equipping them with the necessary tools to safeguard the status of Rohingyas.
Protection of Basic Human Rights in Host States
States in the region have hesitated to officially recognize Rohingyas as refugees to avoid the consequent responsibilities of upholding their basic human rights and facilitate access to socio-economic services including livelihood, shelter, education and health care. This hesitation is justified in part, given the economic struggles of the States in this region, particularly their inability to meet basic needs of their own nationals. Rohingyas end up living in deplorable conditions, often in restrictive refugee camps or in urban settlements, without access to education and livelihood opportunities, and entirely dependent on aid.
It would not be reasonable to demand that host States provide access to socio-economic rights without addressing their technical and financial limitations. The region urgently needs support from third party countries, international organizations, international NGOs and other relevant stakeholders. Currently, there exists country specific mechanisms such as the Joint Response Plan that coordinates efforts, including funding, of the relevant stakeholders to provide humanitarian aid in Bangladesh, which hosts a majority of Rohingya refugees. Similar support is required to assist other States also hosting a substantial Rohingya population.
Regional Trafficking Routes
Even as host States have eschewed a regional perspective of the Rohingya crisis, a growing network of human traffickers have built regional routes. Various reports highlight a large number of intersecting trafficking routes, not only from Myanmar to host States, but also among host States. Traffickers exploit the vulnerabilities as well as the dissimilar treatment of Rohingyas in host States by offering false hopes of positive treatment in another State, leading them to undertake treacherous onward journeys. As a result, the trafficking of Rohingyas, under false promises of marriage or employment opportunities or better standard of living, is rampant. Addressing cross-border trafficking necessitates regional coordination as it allows States to monitor trafficking channels and key operators. Moreover, uniformly upholding basic human rights standards will reduce the need for Rohingyas to take on onward movement.
There is a call for repatriation from both the Host States and the Rohingya community. Recent developments around repatriation include a pilot project between Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate around 1000 Rohingyas. But voluntary, sustainable, safe, and dignified repatriation remains a pipe dream. Repatriation as a legitimate durable solution requires accountability from Myanmar, meaningful participation of Rohingyas and, lastly, a guarantee of safety in Myanmar.
An international and regional coordinated response will alleviate pressures on host States and have the highest chances of preventing a similar crisis in the future. Until then, Rohingyas are only presented with the option of integration in host States and resettlement in third countries. In reality though, integration or resettlement of almost one million Rohingyas suffers additional challenges presented by lack of resources or that of political will. Both require third party countries and other relevant stakeholders to share responsibility. Third party resettlement further should not be limited to Rohingyas from a specific State, and must include holistic and equitable considerations of the economic and demographic capacities of all host States.
A Call for Cooperation
A majority of Rohingyas are hosted by low and middle-income countries that have their own economic and development challenges. Given this reality, it is unfair to hold any developing nations in the South Asian and the Southeast Asian region entirely accountable for refugee protection. UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) acknowledges this disparity and notes that countries hosting refugees make an “immense contribution from their own limited resources” [See Paragraph 14, Chapter III]. On this basis, the GCR advocates principles of equitable responsibility sharing among third party countries, international organizations, and other relevant stakeholders. It also prioritizes building the overall capacity of States and host communities to cope with large scale refugee situations.
GCR provides a potential avenue to mobilize support and cooperation for Rohingya refugees in the South Asian and Southeast Asian region. Its core objectives of easing pressure on host States, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third country solutions and supporting conditions for return with safety and dignity perfectly align with current and future needs of the Rohingya population.
In particular, under the GCR, host countrie/s can request the activation of “Support Platforms” to address protracted refugee situations where host States require additional support from the international community. Support can be in the form of financial and material aid, or even technical expertise for strengthening humanitarian responses. These Platforms also allow for a high degree of ownership and flexibility for host States to identify specific needs and curate comprehensive action plans in response. Examples include Support Platforms created to address the forced displacement in Central America and Mexico, and to address the Afghan refugee crisis.
Host States in the South Asian and the Southeast Asian region should request the creation of a similar Support Platform to coordinate a regional response for the Rohingya refugee crisis. The Support Platform will allow coordination among various stakeholders and serve as a focal point platform to advance partnerships among States, international organizations, financial institutions, civil societies, and academics. Concerns like trafficking and durable solutions, that necessitate a regional approach and the involvement of humanitarian agencies, will directly benefit from such a multi-stakeholder and partnership approach.
It will allow the States in the region to streamline funding towards humanitarian aid, and to equitably distribute the funding according to national and local needs. Based on the current needs of both host States and the Rohingya refugees, funding is needed to address protection, education, livelihood, health, amongst many other concerns, to eventually promote self-reliance amongst Rohingya refugees. Simultaneously, host States will also get the opportunity to strengthen their capacity to mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis on the host community. Easing the burden on host States in the region could also halt the ongoing premature discussions on repatriation. The Global Refugee Forum (GRF), organised under the GCR framework, provides States, international and regional organisations, financial institutions, civil society and other stakeholders, an opportunity to enable responsibility sharing and contribute financial support, technical expertise and policy changes. In GRF 2019, for example, relevant States, including Iran and Pakistan, launched a Support Platform to mobilise aid for the Afghan refugee situation. The upcoming GRF in December 2023 similarly is an opportune moment to activate a Support Platform for the Rohingya refugee crisis. It could be crucial to garner the required global and regional coordination to ensure that Rohingyas refugees do not lose yet another half a decade to statelessness and uncertainty.
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