A new hope for Myanmar's Rohingya migrants?

Last year's exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar highlighted poor planning by regional governments. Now a new approach offers hope for future migrants

Travers McLeod
May 9, 2016
A new hope for Myanmar's Rohingya migrants?
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar sit in a boat

Between the Andaman Sea crisis in our region in May 2015, which revealed the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims to the world as thousands took to rickety boats to escape persecution only to find other countries unwilling to accept them, and the millions still fleeing Syria for Europe and elsewhere, forced migration has arguably become the challenge of our time.

Stories of the suffering of forced migrants emerge daily. The underlying causes – including conflict, human trafficking, people smuggling, transnational crime and now climate change – are resulting in increasing numbers of migrants.

When representatives from about 50 member countries comprising the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime met in August 2013, forced migration was a recognised but often overlooked global challenge.

Back then, there were 51.2 million displaced persons recorded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – as many as the populations of Afghanistan and Australia combined.

In late March, Bali Process ministers met for the first time since that 2013 summit. They did so knowing that the number of people displaced globally is now more than 60 million, an increase of nearly 20% in less than three years and the largest number since World War II.

Governments across the world are struggling to respond effectively; they are fast discovering that unilateral action will not do. In recent times, mismanagement of mass displacement has been as common as displacement itself.

This is why the outcome reached at the Bali Process ministerial meeting is significant. After being established by Indonesia and Australia in 2002, the Bali Process provided a forum for source, transit and destination countries to consider issues surrounding irregular migration. Consideration, however, did not lead to direct action by the Bali Process in situations of mass displacement. Its role during last year’s Andaman Sea crisis, for example, was muted. This apparent abdication of responsibility led Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesia’s former foreign minister and one of the founders of the Bali Process, to call for its co-chairs to step up or step aside.

The decision was made to step up. The Bali Process will now formally review the Andaman Sea crisis in an effort to implement necessary improvements, including contingency planning and preparedness for potential large influxes of migrants. Just as important, a new regional response mechanism has been created that authorises senior officials to consult and convene meetings with affected and interested countries in response to irregular migration issues or future emergency situations.

Put simply, countries have conceded their individual and collective responses have been inadequate. Ministerial co-chairs Retno Marsudi and Julie Bishop, from Indonesia and Australia respectively, together with their senior officials, should be commended for their leadership. They have led a reinvigoration of the Bali Process so that it can broker more predictable and effective responses – even preventative action – on forced migration. They have acknowledged the growing scale and complexity of the challenge and the exploitation and tragic loss of life involved.

An important feature of the Bali Process outcome was its adoption of recommendations from the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration, a second-track process convened by four regional policy institutes that brings together experts from government and non-government organisations, and policy and academic institutions from within and beyond the region.

The dialogue is a genuine policy laboratory on what had seemed an insoluble policy challenge. Discussions have traversed future trends of forced migration, trafficking in persons, key population movements such as the Rohingya people, and how to build protection-sensitive infrastructure. At the heart of deliberations is what active and resilient regional architecture for managing the treatment and movement of asylum seekers, refugees, and stateless and trafficked persons might look like.

Ultimately, improved policy responses can only come from governments. But the development of such responses often relies on second-track processes and the involvement of civil society and business. Indeed, a key focus of the next dialogue meeting in Malaysia in September 2016 will be the role of business and the intersection between security and forced migration.

And now, at least, there is a genuine opportunity for the key intergovernmental institution, the Bali Process, to be less about process and much more about effective, durable and dignified action on forced migration.

Bali Process member countries, especially its co-chairs, must now turn this promise into reality and refuse to let short-term thinking dictate counterproductive national responses. These new capabilities must be put to work.

Travers McLeod is the CEO of the Centre for Policy Development, an independent Australian policy institute that is one of the convenors of the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration.

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