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Can the region respond to the Rohingya crisis?

Can the region respond to the Rohingya crisis?
Published 21 May 2015 

Aid being brought ashore at a Rohingya camp in Myanmar. (Flickr/European Commission.)

The one-day summit scheduled for 29 May in Bangkok on the Rohingya refugee crisis poses many challenges for the region. 

Few regional actors are keen to see the displacement continue or escalate, but in the past, equally few have been prepared to help. The Philippines' willingness to provide humanitarian assistance is heartening, not just for the Rohingya stranded at sea but for the region as a whole. As a signatory to the Refugee Convention and a member of ASEAN, the Philippines is well placed to lead on this issue, notwithstanding its own human security, economic, social and political challenges. Its leadership offers other governments a way forward, and creates the possibility for burden sharing.

Malaysia and Indonesia have now also agreed to provide temporary shelter to the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea — another positive signal ahead of the summit.

But we shouldn't underestimate the challenges that stem from the long history of neglect and abuse of the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted groups in the world.

Pivotal to the current crisis is the Myanmar Government's long-term systematic discrimination against the Rohingya. This  is most pointedly demonstrated by the Rohingya's inability to secure citizenship in Myanmar, rendering them stateless. In a country of around 54 million, Rohingya are thought to total between 800,000 and 1 million. [fold]

Myanmar has long regarded the Rohingya as illegal migrants. In 2012, following extreme anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar's Rakhine province, Myanmar's President Thein Sein suggested the UNHCR resettle the entire Rohingya population. These statements were likely intended for a domestic audience, but they highlight deeply entrenched views in Myanmar, as does the silence of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. UNHCR rejected the President's suggestions, noting that the Rohingya were within Myanmar and had not crossed a border so were not refugees.

Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have borne the brunt of Rohingya refugee flows, and their treatment has been mixed. At times the Thai Navy has been accused of involvement in serious human rights violations of Rohingya escaping Myanmar. Significant populations of Rohingya now live in these countries without legal status, and herein lies part of the challenge. Refugee resettlement to third countries such as the US, Canada, Australia or the UK is sensitive, as it is widely believed it could create pull factors triggering much larger population movements, as would improving their legal status in Malaysia and elsewhere.

The estimated size of the total Rohingya population in the region – between 1.5 to 2 million – is central to the ongoing difficulties facing regional actors. Those in need of protection are large in number and their needs are considerable; discrimination has resulted in poor health, low literacy rates, high morbidity and very low skill levels. Scale is important — the international cooperation that saw the successful resettlement of the small Bhutanese population (around 108,000) out of Nepal is unlikely to be repeated, at least not immediately.

One of the results of this tragic and enduring situation is that smugglers have profited from the growing demand to leave Myanmar and Bangladesh. The impasse involving thousands of Rohingya stranded on boats at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, some having been reportedly pushed back by Indonesian and Malaysian authorities, was a disastrous policy failure in the region and now finally looks to have been abandoned.

But a longer-term cooperative international response is required. This response needs to counter smuggling and trafficking networks, put much greater pressure on Myanmar to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, provide formal resettlement options, improve the Rohingya's legal status in countries in the region and further assist countries hosting Rohingya refugees.

This tragic situation has been a long time in the making and is a running sore for the region and ASEAN. Let's hope that the current crisis galvanises the international community on 29 May.

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