CHIANG MAI - When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) opened its
14th summit this weekend - the first under the new charter it adopted in
December - hopes ran high that the 10-member grouping would finally move beyond
its code of non-interference and evolve into a more proactive organization.
Those hopes have already dimmed by the relegation to the meeting's sidelines of
the first big transnational issue to emerge under the new charter - the dire
and debated status of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya boat people, which rose to
prominence after reports that Thai military officials had abused a group of the
refugees. ASEAN, a legal entity since the adoption of the charter, is expected
to review an initial draft of powers for its new human
rights body at this weekend's summit meeting in Cha-am, Thailand.
Assuming that body has teeth, it will have plenty to dig into. The cross-border
issues of economic migrants, human trafficking and political asylum seekers are
escalating across the 10 ASEAN countries , underscoring the region's growing
interconnectedness and the need for concerted regional responses. By addressing
the Rohingya issue only informally during this weekend's meeting, ASEAN has
demonstrated that it has not yet taken to heart its new commitment to uphold
ASEAN's unwillingness to prioritize the Rohingya crisis, which would inevitably
lead member countries to examine and perhaps criticize the reasons for the
spiraling refugee situation, is consistent with the organization's past
non-confrontational approach to crucial and often delicate regional security
issues. Thailand has said that it officially considers the Rohingya as economic
migrants, which is at odds with media coverage and rights groups who
consistently refer to them as "refugees" and "boat people".
The truth is that the Rohingya are both and as such represent a complex problem
for ASEAN governments. As refugees, they are entitled to certain rights, such
as protection from repatriation, which undocumented economic migrants do not
have. Regional countries view the Rohingya problem differently, raising the
potential for diplomatic turbulence if the issue were opened to public
discussion. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajeva has identified the Rohingya
situation as a regional issue and suggested that it should be discussed by all
concerned ASEAN countries. In a recent interview with the Bangkok Post,
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said regional countries must be firm
in sending the Rohingya back to Myanmar.
Refugee and migrant worker issues are endemic to the region and are expected to
intensify amid the mounting global and regional economic downturn as jobs are
lost, overseas workers return home, and foreign remittances are slashed. A 2009
Global Employment Trends report by the International Labor Organization (ILO)
said that due to a reliance of many Southeast Asian countries on manufacturing
exports, foreign direct investment, tourism and foreign remittances, the region
is highly vulnerable to a prolonged recession in the developed world. Southeast
Asia will also be increasingly impacted by economic slowdowns in China and
The ILO report estimated that as of 2007, 46.6% of those employed in the region
were among the working poor, while 16.4% were considered extreme working poor.
"In other words 30.2% of the employed survive on between US$1.25 and US$2 a
day," the report said. For the region's more developed countries, cheap migrant
labor has become a structural feature of their workforces.
In Singapore migrants are known to make up 30% of the workforce, while in
Malaysia one-in-five workers are migrants, according to the United
Nations-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM). And many of
the region's workers are migrating intra-regionally across borders.
In 2007, the United Nations Development Program estimated that 90% of Myanmar's
overseas workforce of 1.6 million is in Southeast Asia, mostly in Thailand. The
"East and Southeast Asia Situation Report" released by the IOM in 2008, stated
that most of Laos and Cambodia's workers abroad are also in Thailand. An
estimated 59% of Indonesia's 2.3 million overseas workers are scattered across
the region, predominantly in wealthier Malaysia.
Experts note that migrant workers are usually the first to be laid off during
times of economic recession. In a region where most migrants are engaged in
menial labor, this means that workers who are already subsisting on slim
earnings will have to live on even less in the months ahead. The same will be
true for families that are dependant on foreign remittances, particularly in
the Philippines and Vietnam.
Waves of migrants returning unemployed from abroad will put new strains on
regional labor markets, which are already suffering from rising unemployment.
With so many in the region already living below the poverty line - at home and
abroad - rising regional unemployment is expected to worsen poverty and
accentuate development gaps. It could also, depending on how migrants are
handled by regional governments, lead to diplomatic sparring.
Migratory ups and downs
An IOM policy briefer released in January stated that migrants in a majority of
cases actually create economic activity and jobs "because human mobility makes
economies more dynamic and efficient". However, the common view among most
governments is that migrants take local jobs, and retaining them over locals in
difficult economic times would be a difficult policy for governments to
A 2007 ILO study estimated that Myanmar migrant workers added US$11 billion to
the Thai economy, or 6.2% of GDP. Yet thousands of Myanmar migrants are being
laid off, arrested and deported. In an incident that could signal growing
antagonism towards migrants in Thailand, hundreds of Myanmar workers were
arrested earlier this month after the rape and killing of a Thai university
student by two migrant workers in the northern town of Chiang Mai.
The arrests were reportedly accompanied by beatings and locals petitioned the
government to rid the city outright of migrants. Malaysia, known for its
chauvinistic attitude and well-documented mistreatment of Indonesian migrants,
has already announced plans to expel some 100,000 Indonesian migrants.
Singapore has yet to announce large-scale expulsions of migrant workers, but
soon could as hundreds have already been laid off following the cancellation of
major projects which have resulted in a plunge in labor demand.
The Rohingya are currently the most visible problem, and should serve as a test
case for how ASEAN handles future asylum and economic migrant issues under the
grouping's new charter. Among other pressing human rights problems are the
abuse of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore and Malaysia, the
mistreatment of Lao and Cambodian workers on Thai fishing trawlers, and the
ethnic Hmong refugees in Thailand threatened with repatriation to Laos.
Although ASEAN's new charter endorses the concepts of human rights, freedom and
social justice, its clear member states are still unwilling to take the
diplomatic leap of genuinely addressing the often abysmal treatment of the
region's refugees and migrants. Human rights and labor organizations say that
often entails inhumane working conditions, low or non-payment of wages,
physical and sexual abuse by employers and arbitrary deportations. They note
putting the Rohingya on ASEAN's formal agenda would require an uncomfortable
exploration of the allegations of human rights abuses, discrimination and
denial of citizenship perpetuated by Myanmar's military government.
Yet a change in tack is clearly needed. Past regional agreements, including the
2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant
Workers and its 2004 forerunner Declaration on Trafficking in Persons,
Particularly Women and Children, called for cooperation on preventing
trafficking, identifying and protecting victims of trafficking, and promoting
and protecting the rights of migrant workers. Both those declarations have come
under criticism for being too general and non-binding.
Migrant policing is currently mostly handled by individual countries or through
loose bilateral agreements. However these arrangements have been inadequate in
dealing with protection issues - a situation highlighted by Thailand's recent
treatment of the Rohingya and Myanmar's refusal to even acknowledge the
refugees as its citizens. Thai and Malaysian authorities came under harsh
criticism in February when US rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused
them of being in league with human trafficking gangs known to operate along the
In a letter sent on Wednesday to ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, HRW
called on the grouping to improve the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers
and improve protection for migrants. The rights group said that the treatment
of the Rohingyas and the resultant hundreds of deaths "was proof of the need
for regional solutions to Southeast Asia's human rights problems".
The rights lobby also pointed out that the impact of the global economic
downturn on migrants' rights "highlights how gaps in current labor and policy
frameworks across the region also have left millions of workers at high risk of
mistreatment". According to Elaine Pearson, HRW's deputy Asia director,
"ASEAN's continuing failure to hold the [Myanmar] military government
accountable for abuses and ASEAN's unwillingness to provide refuge for those
fleeing oppression in [Myanmar] are two sides of the same coin."
ASEAN's new human rights body will not be formally created until July, but
already human rights and civil society groups are voicing concerns that it will
be a toothless tiger. They note ASEAN's dogged adherence to a policy of
non-interference and say initial drafts of the proposed body indicate that it
will not have any substantial investigative powers.
Placing the Rohingya on this weekend's ASEAN summit meeting's formal agenda
would have given the new human rights body much-needed credibility and set an
important precedent for the grouping's approach to future refugee and migrant
labor issues. By keeping the Rohingya out of the meeting's limelight, as the
summit's organizers have opted, ASEAN members will conduct refugee and migrant
labor policies without meaningful consultation with their often affected
neighbors, or business-as-usual at ASEAN.
1. The 10 members of ASEAN are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore,
Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be
reached at email@example.com.