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Asia Pacific’s role in the Global Compacts on migration and refugees

It is in our interests for these two Compacts to be as complementary as possible and for our region’s experience to help shape both.

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia (Photo: Flickr/Overseas Development Institute
Rohingya refugees in Malaysia (Photo: Flickr/Overseas Development Institute
Published 13 Apr 2017 

The Lowy Institute recently held an expert workshop on the Global Compact on Refugees as part of its research collaboration with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This is the third in a series of posts from workshop participants.

The UN General Assembly's adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants last September sparked negotiations on two Global Compacts: one on safe, orderly and regular migration and the other on refugees. Both are scheduled to come back to the General Assembly for adoption in September 2018.

Both Compacts seek to build on and unearth good practice, innovation and concrete ideas. In the Compact on Refugees the focus is on operationalising a comprehensive refugee response framework (CRRF) to mass outflows, based on pilots in some existing situations. It has its basis in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was reaffirmed at the New York meeting. 

The Compact on Migration covers more expansive ground. The key themes for exploration are: human rights, social inclusion and non-discrimination; man-made and natural crisis situations (including the adverse effects of climate change); decent work, labour migration and expanding regular pathways for migration; contributions of migrants to sustainable development; international cooperation and governance of migration; trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants and contemporary forms of slavery.

Once agreed, the Global Compacts will need to be translated into action on the ground if they are to influence the lives of migrants.

There are approximately 3.5 million refugees in the Asia Pacific. Although there are currently no large-scale influxes, the region has two of the largest refugee producing countries in the world, namely Myanmar and Afghanistan. Also, two out of three of the largest populations of stateless people in the world are in the Asia Pacific. Climate-related displacement is predicted to rise in our region. Asia is home to the five countries with the largest populations in low-lying coastal areas, and has more than 90% of the world’s exposure to tropical cyclones. Displacement in the Pacific from rising sea levels is of great concern.

These circumstances will increase pressure on the migration system and forced migration routes. People facing protracted human security threats will seek to move on as their hopes for a solution wane and frustrations rise.

The Asia Pacific sees large flows of irregular migrants, both within and beyond the region, moving mostly for work opportunities. Extensive labour mobility, in many cases undocumented, is connected to migrant smuggling, trafficking in persons and other transnational crimes. The Asia Pacific is a major source and destination region for human trafficking.

All this means there is a clear need for the region to be involved in the development of the two Global Compacts. As there is currently no major crisis we have an opportunity to take preparatory action – to work to create solutions for the cohort of asylum seekers and refugees in the region, to mitigate the root causes of displacement, to open up alternative pathways for those displaced and to prepare our policies, architecture and operational capability for what is to come.

As negotiation of the Compacts gathers steam, our region has a valuable perspective to offer and it is in our collective interests to contribute to the discussions. The movements of concern to the region - undocumented labour migrants, people affected by sudden and slow onset climate and weather events, internally displaced people, stateless people, mass displacement at sea – are all on the agenda. We have some positive developments to contribute.

Over the last year, the Bali Process has enhanced its governance capability on forced migration and mass movements in various ways. At the Bali Process Ministerial Conference in March 2016, ministers and senior officials commissioned a review of the region’s response to the Andaman Sea situation of May 2015 and created a consultation mechanism to facilitate timely and proactive responses to mass displacement. In November last year, in response to the findings of this review, the Bali Process Ad Hoc Group Senior Officials’ Meeting agreed on a number of actions. They encouraged countries to develop necessary operational systems, in order to better manage mass displacement events, and established the operational-level Taskforce on Planning and Preparedness to coordinate and harmonise the development of these operational systems.

Senior-official co-chairs also undertook to meet with ASEAN institutions to identify existing capacity, complementarities and shared interests, with a view to coordinated responses in the future. Closer links between the Bali Process and ASEAN are critically important, given the significance of these institutions and the countries within them to more effective responses to forced migration.

Overall, the Bali Process is providing a foundation for coordinated regional action, and can set the example for a regional compact.

The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) came into force last month. ACTIP is a strong instrument with the potential to drive real improvement in the region’s responses. Countries of the region have made gains in the development of policy and legal frameworks addressing trafficking, and are collaborating in their enforcement through initiatives such as the Joint Periods of Action under the Bali Process Working Group on the Disruption of People Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons’ Networks.

At the national level, countries such as Thailand and Indonesia are undertaking measures to provide more predictable access to screening for asylum seekers, while Malaysia is experimenting with providing work permits to a limited group of Rohingya refugees.

These developments are all worthy of promotion during the Global Compact negotiations.

The Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration, established in August 2015 as a track II dialogue to advance durable, effective and dignified approaches to forced migration in the region, is proving a useful forum for sharing good practice, shaping policy ideas and generating regional perspectives. It is a forum for advancing and honing those good examples from the region. It is also a good practice in itself. In a global conversation where distrust and unilateralism are gaining dominance, the value of space for reflection and collaborative problem solving cannot be overstated.

This region’s story should be told and heard during the Global Compact negotiations. Solutions for the region may well lie in the places where the two Compacts connect. It is in our interests for these two Compacts to be as complementary as possible in process and substance and for our region’s experience to help shape both.

Editor's note: We mistakenly published an earlier version of this article. This is the corrected text.

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