The recent Southeast Asian migration crisis has reopened the debate on what the appropriate response by receiving countries of refugees should be.
Currently, in Burma, the majority Buddhist population currently persecutes the Muslim Rohingya. In turn, the Rohingya are fleeing by the thousands: as of May 14, 2015, 6000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis have fled. Many of these refugees have ended up on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Most, however, have been turned back; leaving them stranded at sea as stateless citizens.
The resistance of the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Thai governments defended their right to stop the flow of refugees based on both sovereign and budgetary concerns. The Malaysian deputy home minister Junaidi Jafaar was quoted as saying: “We have treated them humanely but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said his government was not financially equipped to deal with the issue and asked, “Everyone wants a transit country like us to take responsibility. Is it fair?”
Eventually, as a response to this crisis, the Malaysian and Indonesian government agreed to stop turning back boats as of May 20, 2015 and offered temporary shelter to the Rohingya. Nevertheless, both heads of state raise a valid point: where is the line drawn? At the core of the debate is that receiving governments of refugees have both a responsibility to refugees and to their own respective citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(1) stipulates,
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
At the same time, democratic governments by definition are elected to serve their own domestic population.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott believes that state sovereignty comes first. His government has infamously turned away boats from Australian shores under the pretense that accepting refugees propagates human trafficking. Unsurprisingly, he has defended the initial decisions of the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Thai governments to turn back the refugee boats. Abbott’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has argued the same point on grounds of sovereignty: “Like Australia, countries in the region have a sovereign right to respond to these matters as they see fit.”
The Australian government has not, however, ignored the issue in its entirety. The Australians have agreed to send $6m to agencies working in the Rakhine region of Burma where the Rohingya are most often targeted. Scholars such as Lilliane Fan, a Bangkok-based expert on humanitarian and conflict issues in Asia, agree that working on the issues in Burma is crucial in order to limit the push factors that motivate the Rohingya to flee.
Nevertheless, advocates of human rights such as Ms. Fan also hold firm that the boats should be accepted and the people offered temporary relief. This is something that the Southeast Asian governments have ultimately agreed to do, whereas Mr. Abbott has not. This is precisely the crux of the debate: what is the ultimate responsibility of receiving governments?
This debate has also been at the forefront of Italian politics. The Italians currently face a situation similar to that of Southeast Asia: thousands of migrants are fleeing from North Africa and the surrounding region to seek refuge in Europe. As recently as May 21st, the Italian coast guard rescued 900 refugees from the Mediterranean Sea, and as many as 500,000 may try to cross the sea in 2015 alone. Conservative politicians argue that they must be sent back before the system collapses. Similar to the Australians, the Italians clamour for the situation in the sending state resolve its issues so that the problem stops there.
Conflicts and persecution are hardly new issues, and neither is the presence of refugees and immigrants. Governments are, however, facing more pressure than ever before, given that communication and travel have become easier; it has gotten to the point where governments and entire domestic populations are seemingly overwhelmed. This is precisely where two competing moral claims run into one another: does the right of the refugee overrule the right to sovereignty? Do governments have the moral obligation to save lives, or are they bound to provide the best for their domestic population?
Both arguments should be assumed valid and considered carefully. As the debate continues, there are neither obvious answers nor easy solutions.
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Aleks Dzintars is an M.A. candidate at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He has written on several topics including diplomacy, security, and immigration. His primary research interest and working thesis focus on the challenges of the Swedish immigrant labour market, the Swedish government’s policies in response to amend them since 2000, and the ultimate efficacy of their programmes.
Featured Photo From Wikimedia.