Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

In search of a regional ‘solution’ to Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis

Reading Time: 5 mins

In Brief

It took the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand more than 10 days to finally come to a joint agreement that would allow the rescue of thousands of dehydrated and starving Rohingya and Bangladeshis who had been drifting in the Andaman Sea for weeks.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

While Acehnese fishermen rescued hundreds of people — against the orders of the Indonesian military — to bring the number of Rohingya and Bangladeshis that reached Indonesia to about 1300, another 1700 or more managed to reach Malaysia, mainly on the island of Langkawi. There are an estimated 8000 or more people still adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits, unable to disembark.

The sudden influx had been caused by crackdowns on trafficking networks in Thailand, spurred by revelations of dozens of ‘death camps’ and ‘slave camps’ in Thailand’s lower south, where the bodies of more than 26 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were discovered on 1 May 2015.

Alarmed by the first arrivals on 10 May 2015, the three countries stepped up maritime patrols. Instead of allowing people in dire need to land, their boats were pushed back to sea after being provided with food, water and fuel to continue their journey.

Each government claimed its country was not the desired destination of these boatpeople. This deadly ping-pong continued for a week, despite harsh criticism from the United Nations and its High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the international community, which warned that further delays would turn these boats into floating coffins.

On 20 May, the three foreign ministers finally pledged to take in 7000 boatpeople and allow them to be processed in their respective territories under strict conditions. Indonesia and Malaysia have offered only ‘temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community’, who must take on all financial responsibilities.

The UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are already overburdened with refugees and asylum seekers. The average waiting time in Indonesia, from registration to first interview, ranges from six to 17 months. Resettlement often takes even longer given the few spots available for recognised refugees residing in Southeast Asia. Resettlement options have further decreased since Australia announced that it would no longer resettle refugees who had registered at the UNHCR in Jakarta after 1 July 2014.

Turkey has pledged US$1 million to explore ways of organising a humanitarian aid operation to reach the Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea. The Philippines, the US and Gambia have indicated they might be willing to accept recognised refugees for permanent resettlement. But Australia has categorically ruled out resettling any Rohingya and Bangladeshis from this current group.

While asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia wait for designated housing, Indonesia’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, has resurrected a mothballed plan to house asylum seekers and refugees on an uninhabited island somewhere in the archipelago while they wait to be processed. This plan is not exactly new and, for many good reasons, the previous governments decided not to implement it.

Given the mixed experience with the detention island of Galang — which served as a transit point for Indochinese refugees awaiting resettlement under the so-called Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s — Indonesia had refrained from reviving such an option.

Despite its many shortfalls, the CPA is now increasingly promoted as a potential blueprint for a new regional ‘solution’. In many regards, the CPA was the first regional ‘solution’ for refugees from Southeast Asia and beyond, as it generated cooperation between the country of origin (Vietnam), the transit countries (Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand) and the resettlement countries (the United States, Canada, France and Australia).

Long before the current emergency, regional talks about regional ‘solutions’ were omnipresent. The search is one of the key tasks for the so-called Bali Process, a voluntary forum co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia. The 45-member forum includes the UNHCR and the IOM, as well as a number of observer countries and international agencies.

But definitions of what could constitute a regional solution are still vague. It seems everybody has a very different understanding of it. To a number of countries in the region — particularly Australia — it supposedly means refugees should be resettled anywhere in the region, except Australia.

Along with these diverging views, collaboration and a multilateral approach — as demanded by the Bali Process — have been overshadowed by Australia’s unilateral decision-making and bilateral agreements to transfer refugees to countries such as Nauru, Papua New Guinea and now Cambodia.

It is tempting to join the vociferous calls for regional ‘solutions’ — as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have been making for some time. But before doing so, it might be worth asking what a ‘solution’ means for each of them.

Does it mean preventing asylum seekers from leaving their countries of origin and preventing them from coming to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia? Or is it a rather long-term process to provide better protection for asylum seekers and refugees in the Asia Pacific region?

If the ‘solution’ is merely to stop the irregular flow of asylum seekers in the region, it would be seriously impaired from the start. Not only would it be naïve to believe that human mobility outside managed migration schemes could be fully prevented, it would also put the lives of many who may have to flee persecution in the future in great danger.

Dr Antje Missbach is a research fellow at the School of Social Sciences, Monash University. She has recently co-edited a book Linking People: Connections and Encounters Between Australians and Indonesians.

 A version of this article was originally published here by Asian Currents.

3 responses to “In search of a regional ‘solution’ to Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis”

  1. Refugeea are a serious problem and have been for many years. Day by day it is becoming more difficult as no country wants to receive them due to heavy expense to keep them and as they are seen as potential problem.
    Unfortunately of late refugees are of one community and they are not welcome and seen as future problem.
    But what is the solution? The first step for the world should be to pressurize refuge source countries to look in to problems and take action to prevent refuge leaving country. At the same time potential refugees must co-operate with governments to bring amicable solutions by give and take methods. Normally a community comes under pressure due to faulty leadership of potential refugees. A bright example is what happened in Sri Lanka a decade ago.

  2. One is struck by the humanity of poor Acehnese fisherman and their (still relatively poor)Sicilian counterparts in the Mediterranean,in saving lives. If only our political leaders also as “children of the Book” had a similar moral compass.

    I agree with the author that the Australian government has lost any credibility – let alone moral legitimacy – in dealing with this problem. Unlike in the Philippines and the East Timorese, the only two other countries to have signed the 1950s UN Convention on Refugees, the present, Australian government of closet White Australia nostalgics plays “fast and loose” with its responsibilities under international law.

    Dealing with the Rohingya question requires action at four levels:
    a. at the ‘micro-regional level developing Rakhine state so that Rakhine Buddhists no longer see their Muslim neighbors as a threat. This means also dealing with illegal migration from Bangladesh.
    b. At the national level, resolving debates on the origins of the Muslims of Rakhine State (mostof whom call themselves Rohingya) and restoring both the nationality (i.e.. giving citizenship) removed in 1982 and the 500,000 temporary white cards taken back in the last months.

    As long as the Muslims of Rakhine state are stateless, the very basis of according to them the universal principles of human rights is non-existent and the slow motion ethnic cleansing will continue.

    Hopefully ne day the majority Bamar in Myanmar will go beyond their childish ethno-religious chauvinism and realize that being a multi-racial, mutli-religious society is a real plus in a globalized world.The genius of the Indonesians has been to have understood this from their independence struggle.

    c. At the regional,level (i.e. ASEAN) moving beyond the hypocrisy of non-interference: as for the haze in 1997-98, when what happens in one member state has regional impact then it is entirely legitimate that those affected respond. Within another regional polity (the EU) and despite Europe’s faults, there is at least a debate about a pan-regional response in the EU, and very concrete responses to even greater challenges.

    d. At the international level (UN) dealing with disorder in a disorderly world by better dealing with the roots causes of such population flows and putting in place mechanisms of compliance with UN Conventions.

    • David C,

      There are still +-80,000 refugees from East Timor in Indonesia, most of whom are either too scared to go home or have nothing to return to as their homes and land have been stolen. btw E.Timor was pushing back to Indonesia refugee boats en route to Australia before Australia started doing it. E.Timor has signed a lot of things they never had any intention of conforming to.

      Genius of the Indonesians? Try that one on the Malukans in the Netherlands. Or the Eurasian civilisation expelled and now dispersed across the globe.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.