Tackling Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis

The beginning of the monsoon rains in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, coupled with the international spotlight on human traffickers in the region, appears to have slowed the flight of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar in recent weeks. But once the storms run their course, sometime around October, migrant departures could again erupt and create another humanitarian crisis in the region.

Regional governments, the United Nations, and the US government should use the intervening four months to begin addressing some of the root push-and-pull factors prompting the refugees to board the boats of traffickers in a risky effort to reach neighboring countries.

Thousands of western Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya, of which there are roughly 1 million, have fled the country each year by boat due to discrimination, dire poverty and lack of opportunity. Many of them have been trafficked to work on Thai fishing boats. Others have ended up on the Thai border before eventually being trafficked to Malaysia, where many have been able to find menial jobs.

In its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to Tier 3, the lowest rating, for not tackling human trafficking. Earlier this year, the European Union threatened to block Thai seafood imports unless the government demonstrates progress in ending the widespread use of forced labor in its fishing industry.

In response, Thailand launched a probe into human trafficking in early May that resulted in efforts to block migrant ships from landing on Thai shores. Within days, refugee workers warned that thousands of desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were drifting around the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits in unseaworthy boats, abandoned by smugglers and then refused landing by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

That emergency began to ease after May 20 when Malaysia and Indonesia announced that they would provide temporary refuge for the migrants stranded at sea and dispatch ships to look for them.

A critical issue that needs to be addressed in tackling the refugee crisis is the treatment of the Rohingya. The United Nations estimates that more than 130,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar by boat in the past three years, driven by abuse that has worsened as anti-Muslim sentiment boiled over after Myanmar launched political reforms. Scores died in conflicts with the Buddhist majority in 2012, and roughly 140,000 were rounded up in camps surrounded by barbed wire. The government, which insists that even those whose families have lived in Myanmar for generations are Bengalis, denies the Rohingya citizenship and restricts their right to travel.

Last month, Soe Thane, a presidential adviser who is considered a reformer, urged in an opinion piece in Japan’s Nikkei Weekly that the international community consider providing greater assistance to Rakhine State, where the Rohingya live, to help tackle the abject poverty that is driving many to leave. Investing in economic projects that would create jobs could reduce the numbers seeking to flee, the minister argued. And boosting the economic fortunes of the Buddhist Rakhine population could help assuage their grievances against the Rohingya.

For the United Nations, ASEAN, and countries such as the United States and Japan to explore economic aid for the entire population of Rakhine would require a commitment from Myanmar that it would agree to offer the Rohingya some form of citizenship, fair treatment, and protection. Priscilla Clapp, a former US chief of mission in Myanmar, argues that any consideration of citizenship and protection of the Rohingya would require assurances that Myanmar would not face a new influx of migrants from Bangladesh. This, Clapp says, would require international aid to help those Rohingya across the border in Bangladesh and convince the government in Dhaka to “normalize” the status of its Rohingya population.

Convincing the Myanmar government to provide more rights for the Rohingya ahead of elections in November would undoubtedly be a challenge. Anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority Buddhist population is widespread and deeply held, so any effort to help the Rohingya could easily create a backlash.

A second issue that needs to be tackled is that of the people smugglers who have long made their livelihoods ferrying migrants from Myanmar to hook up with traffickers along the Thai-Malaysia border. To tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa, a coalition of countries has provided ships to deter and disrupt pirate attacks. A similar operation could possibly be developed for the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, perhaps involving the coalition patrolling the Straits of Malacca to discourage and interrupt the operations of human smugglers.

The third issue that needs to be addressed is the human trafficking along the Thai-Malaysia border. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur have both launched probes into trafficking in recent months. Thailand announced last month that it had discovered about three dozen bodies in a makeshift camp near the Thai-Malaysia border. Meanwhile in Malaysia, officials around the same time took journalists to see about 150 graves near the Thai border in what they suspected were human trafficking camps.

In Thailand, more than 50 people, including an army officer and local officials, have been arrested in recent weeks on charges of human trafficking, detention, and/or ransom. Police are reportedly looking for several dozen others. It is critical that the United States and other governments press the Thai military government to put an end to the trafficking. As a next step, the military should approve an independent investigation (in cooperation with the United Nations), release the results, and bring to justice those responsible for perpetrating these abuses.

Malaysia’s demotion to Tier 3 in the U.S. human trafficking report has prompted some in Congress to call for Malaysia to be expelled from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement currently under negotiation. In a compromise, congressional leaders working on the TPP have agreed that Malaysia can remain in the negotiations as long as the US secretary of state certifies that the government is taking “concrete steps” to combat trafficking. They argue that this would help Malaysia see concrete benefits from taking the politically challenging steps of tackling trafficking.

Short of an international diplomatic and economic effort to tackle this complex and multilayered problem, it is quite possible that another outpouring of refugees could erupt before the end of the year.

Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1) is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS. This recently appeared on the CSIS website.