As Southeast Asian countries meet today, May 29, in Thailand to try to address the crisis of the Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, I think it's important we not lose sight of the human aspect to this tragedy. That was the point of my May 22 "Inside Edge" column in The Edge Review. For those who don't read The Edge Review online, you are missing the premier magazine covering Southeast Asia. And I'll paste my column here.
For Refugees, Silence is a Death Sentence
©The Edge Review
In Southeast Asia, thousands of desperate Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and poor asylum seekers from Bangladesh drift hopelessly in the Andaman Sea, bounced like ping pong balls between countries that refuse to let them land.
Off Europe’s southern coast, thousands fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East make the perilous journey in rickety boats across the Mediterranean, despite thousands having already died along the route.
Meanwhile, hundreds of asylum-seekers hoping to start a new life in Australia languish in squalid detention camps in Nauru and other tiny remote islands in the South Pacific.
The world’s tired, poor and huddled masses are on the move, yearning to reach more stable, prosperous countries where they might live and breathe free. And the world’s response to this wave of humanity? Not compassion or a welcoming lamp, but callous indifference to their suffering.
For the countries at the front line, these asylum- seekers are wretched refuse to be prevented from washing up on their shores at all costs.
Sadly, this cold-hearted response is nothing new, particularly here in Asia.
From the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, I covered the crisis of the Vietnamese “boat people” arriving on the doorsteps of Hong Kong and their neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. They similarly found the welcome mat rolled up. In Hong Kong, they were held in prison-like conditions on a remote island. Their ultimate destination was the US, as many claimed they were still escaping Communism years after the fall of Saigon.
On one level, the callousness is explicable, as abhorrent as it is. Refugees, particularly the poor and unskilled ones, are seen as a burden, even in places such as Thailand, Singapore and most of the Western European countries that are suffering from low birth rates, aging populations and a shrinking labour pool.
Countries want to pick their immigrants, not just have a self-selected group wash up ashore. And most places would choose to pick the wealthier, skilled ones.
Government officials have also come up with this convenient distinction – one I first heard thrown at the Vietnamese in the 1980s – between so-called “genuine” refugees fleeing persecution at home and “economic migrants” simply looking for a better life abroad.
Officials in Hong Kong tried to argue that those from Communist North Vietnam were only “economic migrants” and had no real fear of repression. Only those from the former South Vietnam or with some connection to the old US- backed Saigon government could be deemed legitimate asylum-seekers.
Similarly, European Union officials now try to distinguish between Syrian or Sudanese refugees fleeing brutal civil wars as opposed to Eritreans or Ethiopians fleeing joblessness and hopelessness. Or Southeast Asian officials trying to distinguish between a Myanmar Rohingya fleeing fear or persecution and a Bengali escaping grinding poverty.
In the end, is there a difference? Should the heart be more open to the one who will be killed by a machete or a bullet, but not the one killed by hunger or disease?
As long as there are some countries engulfed in perpetual war, anarchy (such as Somalia and Libya) and endemic poverty, some people will continue to risk their lives to find a way out, to a new place where they can breathe freely and begin imagining a future for their families. Rich countries cannot build walls and fences high enough to keep poor people out.
And as long as there are people desperate enough to flee their homeland, there will be traffickers to profit from it. They have the boats and the means, and they can bribe the police and military officials who need to be bribed.
The problem must be tackled at the root, and that means trying to solve, or at least alleviate, the “push factors” causing people to flee in the first place.
The US, Europe and the West largely ignored Syria’s civil war for four years, and now there are Syrian refugees trying to make it to Europe. A US-and-European coalition helped topple Muammar Gaddafi and then abandoned Libya to its warring gangs, leaving a handy transit point for traffickers.
In Southeast Asia, the crisis has been abetted by a stunning reluctance to condemn Myanmar for its repression of its minority Rohingya population. Solving the refugee problem means first solving the repression of Rohingya in Myanmar.
Begin with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the most popular politician in the country. As the Rohingya crisis swirls, her silence has been deafening. ASEAN must step up. And Suu Kyi must start acting less like a politician and more like a moral leader.