ASEAN must ensure protection for refugees, asylum seekers

June 20th, 2020  •  Author:   The Daily Star  •  4 minute read

The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), and Progressive Voice (PV) call upon ASEAN leaders to address growing xenophobia toward undocumented migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

On the occasion of World Refugee Day 2020 and ahead of the 36th ASEAN Virtual Summit on 26 June, they also urge Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders to enact a comprehensive and coordinated regional response toward the Rohingya refugee crisis, to ensure life-saving access to asylum, and to address the root causes of Rohingya flight so that repatriation may one day be possible.

The forums are deeply concerned by the recent refusal of some ASEAN member states to allow territorial access to people seeking safety. In the past months, both Malaysia and Thailand have refused disembarkation for boats of Rohingya refugees in distress, many on the brink of death from starvation, and often having been at sea for months.

Most recently, on 8 June, Malaysian authorities intercepted a boat and arrested 269 Rohingya, threatening to deport them to Bangladesh, the latter stating their refusal to accept them. While Bangladesh has not engaged in pushbacks, they have intercepted boats and redirected Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char, a flood-prone island with limited access to resources, restrictions on movement, and other life-threatening challenges.

As people and civil society representatives in ASEAN, the forums observe with concern that fear surrounding Covid-19 has increasingly become instrumentalised by states to justify restricting access to asylum and cracking down on minority migrant populations.

For example, on 16 April, the Malaysian Navy refused the disembarkation of a boat carrying approximately 200 Rohingya refugees, citing Covid-19 protection measures as justification. Malaysian authorities have also used Covid-19 to legitimise rounding up and detaining migrant men, women, and children. ASEAN must work to ensure member states refrain from normalising restrictive policies enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic and using them to circumvent international obligations.

We are also greatly alarmed by the sharp rise in xenophobic and anti-Rohingya sentiment in Malaysia and the lack of a regional condemnation of hateful rhetoric. Equally concerning was Malaysia’s Ministry of Home of Affairs’ dehumanising language in its 30 April media release, which used the term “rat holes” to describe how Rohingya and other refugees and undocumented migrants entered Malaysian territory.

ASEAN governments must not accept hatred and division as a consequence of pandemic- related fear. Instead, ASEAN should ensure proportionate access to services during the pandemic, including Covid-19 testing and treatment, and equal protection for all people, including asylum seekers and refugees, both at the state and regional levels.

While there is an ongoing effort by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to call on ASEAN leaders to uphold and protect human rights during the pandemic, little has been done to address the unique challenges and experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

It is imperative for ASEAN leaders to develop a coordinated, comprehensive, and actionable plan that addresses both the proximate problems, such as the ongoing boat crisis, and root problems concerning the Rohingya. When States fail Rohingya men, women, and children, they are failing ASEAN people. Until cooperative action is taken, the region, as a whole, will continue to face costly, destabilising, and dangerous developments in response to rising divisionism.

Further, ASEAN Member States should continue shouldering the duty of care for the populations of Myanmar who have been displaced due to the ongoing conflict in the country, including in Rakhine, Chin, Karen, Kachin, and Shan states. For the nearly 100,000 refugees along the Thailand-Myanmar border, the failing peace process and the ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar remain deeply concerning.

These, coupled with the drastic decrease in funding toward refugee support, are making it difficult for refugees to maintain their livelihoods in the nine camps along the border, effectively creating circumstances so untenable that some return to Myanmar, despite risk of persecution. ASEAN must hold Myanmar to account for its role in creating a regional refugee crisis, one that could be meaningfully resolved through determined ASEAN action.

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