Latest Highlight

Asia should stay focused on unsolved migrant dilemmas

Refugees, many of whom say they are Rohingya, wait for access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees building in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 11. © Reuters

By Michael Vatikiotis
September 27, 2015

People are on the move across Southeast Asia, fleeing misery and violence. Just as Europe has become a favored destination for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war-torn Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, so Muslim minorities from the eastern and western fringes of Southeast Asia are finding their way to the region's more prosperous countries in search of security and often, third-country asylum.

In the past two years, according to United Nations reports, as many as 100,000 people from Myanmar's Rakhine State have left in search of safety and security, about half of them ending up in Malaysia. 25,000 of them left in the first three months of 2015. They mostly endured perilous sea journeys in rickety boats across the Bay of Bengal; they were often smuggled into Malaysia by human traffickers, whose methods of abuse have been exposed in recent months by the discovery of abandoned camps with cages and mass graves on either side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Over the same period, thousands of Turkic Muslim Uighurs from the western province of Xinjiang in China have found their way across Chinese borders with Vietnam and Laos, mostly with the aid of established smuggling rings. Once across the border, they head overland through Cambodia into Thailand and try to reach Malaysia, from where the vast majority of some 4,000 Uighurs, according to UN sources, have been quietly given asylum in Turkey.

Both groups are persecuted Muslim minorities, who in recent years have experienced prejudice and communal violence in areas they have inhabited for centuries. Neither Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar nor Uighur Muslims can join or integrate with existing indigenous minorities in the region. Unlike the Karen, Shan, or Kachin and other ethnic minorities from conflict- -affected Myanmar, they stand out and are more often the victim of human trafficking and exploitation for low wages.

The scourge of human trafficking has been highlighted by the revelations earlier this year of camps where Rohingya, and possibly Uighur migrants, were kept while in transit to Malaysia. Conditions were appalling, and many graves were found with evidence that migrants were poorly fed and beaten. Last year almost 300 Uighurs were found shivering with cold on a jungly hilltop in southern Thailand. They said only that they were Turkish and were trying to get to Turkey.

Action and inaction

The scenes of human misery revealed along the Thai-Malaysian border have goaded governments in Southeast Asia to take action. As a surge in boat arrivals from Myanmar earlier this year generated pictures of desperate, hungry Rohingya in filthy conditions waiting to disembark, there were promises to take them in from Malaysia, and a ripple of diplomatic activity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations aimed at crafting a regional action plan. When the boats stopped coming with the onset of the monsoon, the problem seemed to go away -- and so did efforts to tackle the problem.

Then something altogether more chilling happened. On a balmy, rush-hour evening in September in central Bangkok, a bomb packed with ball bearings ripped through a popular Hindu shrine, , killing more than 20 people, most of them ethnic Chinese. The investigation soon revealed a link to Uighurs and a possible human smuggling operation, part of a pipeline that enables Uighurs to travel from China all the way to Turkey.

Although ongoing, the police investigation has tentatively established a link between the suspected bombers, some of whom have been identified as either Turkish or Chinese citizens, and a decision by the Thai government earlier this year to forcibly deport 109 Uighurs to China. Human rights activists fear that those deported almost certainly have faced violence at the hands of the Chinese authorities. There was a swift and angry response in Turkey where the Chinese embassy and a Thai consulate were attacked by protestors. Other countries in Southeast Asia have also deported Uighurs, but in smaller numbers, after China exerted pressure on governments to return them.

What this tells us is that migrants and the people who move them, normally for money, can potentially become instruments of terror and violence. This poses a mighty dilemma, both for the states through which they pass, and the international agencies and local non governmental organizations that seek to protect them. How then to protect people fleeing persecution as refugees, yet who potentially could turn radical and resort to violence in the countries they seek safety in?

In the name of humanity there can certainly be no dilution of already weak and poorly applied standards of protection in Southeast Asia. If anything, the lessons from the surge in boat arrivals from Myanmar and now, what appears to be an influx of Uighurs, speak to the need for escalating efforts to find regional solutions to the movement of people in distress. Steps taken by ASEAN earlier this year to tackle the problem need to be revived and invigorated. The goal should be an approach that adequately protects refugees and allows international agencies to process them to speed up safe and secure resettlement.

There is no indication that the flow of migrants is slowing down, or that the distressed areas from which they come are becoming any safer. In fact, some international agencies predict that elections scheduled in Myanmar in the first week of November could exacerbate already tense relations between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State.

Both the boat crisis earlier this year and the violence possibly prompted by the deportation of Uighurs from Thailand should serve as a wake-up call, especially since the 10 ASEAN member states are due to declare the region as a common economic community at the end of the year.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia regional director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a private diplomacy organization.

Write A Comment

Rohingya Exodus