The View From Asia

Dealing with refugees in the region

Months after the plight of asylum seekers in this part of the world first made headlines, the situation is dismal. Here are excerpts from commentaries that call for a review.

The new slave trade

C. R. Abrar
The Daily Star, Bangladesh

News of reprehensible activities of human traffickers has begun to resurface. Bernama news agency recently reported that in a raid in Penang, the police rescued 27 Bangladeshi men who were victims of human trafficking. The most revealing part of the police account was: "All the foreigners are believed to have entered the country legally but the syndicate that had promised them jobs locked them up and intended to sell them off to their potential employers".

It went on to state that each of them were charged a certain fee to be brought into Malaysia, and they were sold off for RM 3,000 (S$1,002) to each employer. 

The efforts of the Malaysian police in rescuing this group of labour migrants are praiseworthy. However, it is also a stark reminder that syndicates of human smugglers and traffickers are still active.

Unsuspecting migrants going through the formal channel in order to eke out a living in a distant land seem to be becoming virtual slaves. This turn of events takes place in the backdrop of the uncovering of scores of mass graves and the rescue of hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis in high seas in the Andaman and the Bay of Bengal, and inmates from illegal detention centres in remote regions of Malaysia and Thailand last year.

This photo taken on May 20, last year shows Rohingya refugees resting on a boat off the coast near Kuala Simpang Tiga in Indonesia's East Aceh district before being rescued. Indonesia is not just a transit country for the Rohingya, but for displaced people from more than 40 countries in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As in most such cases, the public outrage lasted for a certain duration, the media remained engaged for a while, the respective governments promised action against the perpetrators that did not eventuate in any substantive redress, and regional conferences were convened that viewed the movement as irregular flow, and dealt with it from a national security perspective, instead of emphasising the root causes, issues of labour migration and the human rights perspective. 


Asean member states should provide full protections to Rohingya refugees, including the right to liberty and freedom of movement.

In reality, individually, the concerned states did little to apprehend the real perpetrators.

In Bangladesh, a few low-level operators of trafficking gangs of the Cox's Bazar-Teknaf region became victims of "crossfire". Needless to say, the evidence of involvement of "big fishes" got buried with them.

Likewise, in Malaysia, the initial moves to take action against the perpetrators appear to have run out of steam. Although in Thailand, an unswerving general took some meaningful actions against the syndicates, within months he was forced to flee the country and seek asylum in Australia.

All these indicate how lucrative the new slave trade has become and how powerful the syndicates are and how far their reach can extend. They also lay bare the incapacity, if not unwillingness, of the states, to individually and collectively confront the grave crisis in proper stride.

Shelter v shielded borders

Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

In May last year, three boats with more than 1,800 on board reached Aceh after a hazardous trip. Although the Indonesian Navy had tried to prevent at least one boat from landing by first equipping the boat with fuel and food and then forcing it back to sea, these people were later allowed to come on land. Not least because Acehnese fishermen had ignored the military orders.


Following a trilateral crisis meeting of the foreign ministers from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter two promised to provide the Rohingya boat people with shelter for up to a year. 

Indonesia is not just a transit country for the Rohingya, but for displaced people from more than 40 countries in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As a non-signatory of the Refugee Convention, Indonesia has no obligation to accept asylum seekers and integrate recognised refugees, but based on humanitarian considerations it respects and protects the human rights of those who stay temporarily in Indonesia. 

The status of the Rohingya as displaced Muslim minority has raised a lot of sentiments of solidarity and this impacts on how they are treated in transit. Never has a group of forced migrants in Indonesia seen so many donations and so much public support.

So far, Indonesia has allowed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to receive and handle the Rohingya like other asylum seekers and refugees. But despite all these efforts, the UNHCR in Jakarta faces the consequences of global resettlement fatigue. Refugees in Indonesia are not a resettlement priority. In addition, the rejected asylum seekers who cannot be repatriated to their countries of origin are becoming an increasing burden for Indonesia. 

Although Indonesia receives international aid to provide for them, it faces increasing social problems with their temporary quasi-integration. To provide this basic care, Indonesia depends on the support from international organisations, such as the International Organisation for Migration, and other countries such as Australia.

This dependence is seen with critical eyes by many Indonesian politicians and policymakers. In their view, forcibly displaced migrants are not the only victims, but Indonesia as a transit country is also a victim in this current hegemonic international constellation, in which richer, powerful countries can keep unwanted forced migrants away in transit states. It is not helpful at all that Australia keeps building higher walls and turns a blind eye to the consequences of their asylum policies for neighbouring countries.

Rohingya still in lock-ups

The Nation, Thailand

It has been 10 months since the crackdown on human traffickers began but many Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar before being caught in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia are still suffering hardship.

In an 18-page report released by Fortify Rights and the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), it is claimed that at least 40 Rohingya refugees are being kept in squalid conditions at the Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre, including a dozen or more boys under the age of 18.

The group said thousands more were held in immigration detention centres throughout Malaysia.

Survivors from the May 2015 boat crisis reportedly remain detained in the Belantik IDC (immigration detention centre), where the report said access by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and service providers was extremely limited. 

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia said the lack of access to UNHCR registration was the single most important issue they faced, followed by a lack of access to affordable healthcare and livelihoods.

Fortify Rights and BROUK have urged the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to end the indefinite detention of Rohingya refugees. 

They also called on Asean member states to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Asean member states should provide full protections to Rohingya refugees, including the right to liberty and freedom of movement, they said.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Dealing with refugees in the region'. Print Edition | Subscribe