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How Europe Can Help the Rohingya

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Can Europe offer any borderless lessons to help Southeast Asia with its own migrant crisis?

By Claire Greenstein, Brandon Tensley
Foreign Policy 
January 28, 2016

When the dry season brings calmer seas to Southeast Asia, scores of Rohingya Muslims are likely to take to rickety boats to flee oppression in their homelands. As this sailing season looms again in the region, so does a refugee crisis that follows with equally seasonal regularity.

The Rohingya are a distinct, Muslim minority in Southeast Asia, whose presence in the region stretches back some 1,000 years. Since 2012, over 100,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar due to religious discrimination, typically fueled by Buddhist agitators. Many have been shut out of nearby countries where they sought shelter. Today, there are sizeable Rohingya communities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Despite their historical roots in the region, the Rohingya are largely viewed as foreigners and denied basic rights.

Looking back, 2015 could be summed up as the year of the global refugee crisis. Civil war in Syria has increased the global rate of displacement due to persecution and war to the highest recorded levels in history. Europe has yet to develop a coordinated, region-wide response to refugee floods. While Europe’s refugee crisis has taken center stage in global politics, Asia has long been home to the largest number of asylum seekers and refugees on the planet. The United Nations estimates that the number of displaced persons in Asia skyrocketed by over 30 percent in 2014. Though there is an obvious need for leadership and strategies for supporting refugees, there remains a policy vacuum in the region.

Few Asian countries have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines who qualifies as a refugee, the rights guaranteed to refugees, and the responsibilities that states have to them. The agreement could be beneficial in Southeast Asia, both for states and for refugees. By signing, states receive guidelines on how to address refugee inflows, and if they abide by the definition of who qualifies as a refugee, they also get political cover for rejecting individuals who do not fit the decades-old definition. Refugees, in turn, are guaranteed at least some basic rights.

In 2015, The New York Times described China and India, Asia’s two top-league powers, as “sitting out” of the Rohingya refugee crisis. This inaction was largely the result of putting moral concerns second to political calculus. Countries see no positive outcome in the short-term for touching a tinderbox issue.

If strong leadership cannot be found in Asia’s most powerful countries, the best tool to address the crisis might be the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Southeast Asia’s most inclusive intergovernmental organization. In 2012, after much debate, ASEAN adopted a Human Rights Declaration that explicitly enshrined the right to asylum.

Ironically, however, human rights activists are wary that this declaration may actually undermine human rights gains in the region, because it states that “the realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context.” This clause can be interpreted as allowing states to use their national context – i.e. religious background– as a pretext to reject certain refugees. The declaration will likely not encourage a sense of shared responsibility.

With hopes of a regional approach waning, the Rohingya may benefit from the approach recently adopted by France and other European countries working to address the root cause of migration. Fearing that it can’t take another year of heavy migrant influx, Europeans are leaning toward a retooled refugee strategy, one that devotes key resources to quelling the war in Syria to stem refugee flows at the source.

In Southeast Asia, fostering reconciliation, especially in Myanmar, between the Rohingya and their oppressors would be a serious step forward. Recent fieldwork conducted by Anthony Ware and Ronan Lee suggests that domestic compromise can be attained. Both minority Rohingya Muslims and majority Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where some 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live, believe that peace could be achieved if the government would provide the political leadership and resources necessary to ensure each community’s human rights. Following a thumping victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s historic November election, all eyes have turned to NLD chairwoman Aung Sang Suu Kyi to bring attention and action to the plight of the Rohingya. Regrettably, the democracy icon has so far fallen short on addressing the widespread discrimination against the Muslim community, drawing criticism for what many see as bowing to political pressure from the country’s overwhelmingly Buddhist voters.

Regional leaders have a chance to prevent the next chapter of Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis. ASEAN nations may be able to solve their refugee problem by using a judicious combination of carrots and sticks to entice governments to dismantle the anti-Muslim frameworks that have made the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world.

Working toward a solution to the region’s substantial refugee challenges will require a bold response at the regional level to address the large numbers of refugees and the root causes of displacement. One or more regional governments must take up the mantle to support these efforts and funds must be provided to ultimately integrate Rohingya refugees into their new host countries or back into society in Myanmar.

2015 has taught us that there is no silver bullet for refugee crises. If 2016 is to be different, and if fewer Rohingya are to lose their lives in the pursuit of safety, ASEAN countries must accept their responsibility and work together toward a sustainable solution.

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