Is the Next Refugee Crisis in the Asia-Pacific Region Imminent?

A Call for Regional Cooperation in Response to Irregular Movement of Refugees and Migrants

The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime has been in existence for 20 years and has been commended for its longevity, policy dialogue, and capacity building. However, despite its potential as a platform for regional cooperation on irregular movement, it has yet to fully realize this potential. The distressing situation of Rohingya refugees left adrift at sea in late 2022 serves as another tragic reminder of this fact.

The upcoming Bali Process Ministerial Conference in Adelaide, Australia, on February 9-10, 2023, is a crucial opportunity to renew the commitment to regional cooperation and to reinvigorate the response mechanisms developed after the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis, in which an estimated 8,000 people were stranded at sea by smugglers.

Ongoing conflict and instability in Myanmar, combined with the dire conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh, suggest that more people will undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety and opportunity elsewhere. The region must be prepared. The Bali Process can and should serve as a platform for coordinating humane and legal responses to the irregular movement of refugees and migrants.

The groundwork for this has been laid. The 2016 Bali Declaration, which called for collective action to respond to irregular movement, was agreed upon at the Sixth Ministerial Conference. Against the backdrop of the deadly failures during the Andaman Sea Crisis, the Declaration recognized the transnational nature of irregular migration and called for a comprehensive regional approach based on burden sharing and collective responsibility, underpinned by international legal obligations.

Following the Andaman Sea Crisis, an internal review of the Bali Process’ response highlighted coordination shortcomings but also identified opportunities. The review noted the potential of the Consultation Mechanism, another outcome of the Sixth Ministerial Conference, and the soon-to-be-formed Task Force on Planning and Preparedness (TFPP). The review saw a “window of opportunity” to prevent similar situations from occurring again.

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The Bali Process Must Renew Its Commitment to Regional Cooperation on Irregular Movement

Despite being hailed for its serious-minded policy dialogue and longevity, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime has not fully realized its potential as a platform for regional cooperation on irregular movement. The Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean saw boats of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in the last two months of 2022, highlighting the Bali Process’ lack of coordination and cooperation on this issue. The upcoming Ministerial Conference in Adelaide, Australia, is a crucial opportunity to recommit to regional cooperation and reenergize response mechanisms to irregular movement.

The Bali Declaration, agreed upon in 2016, called for collective action to respond to irregular movement, recognizing the transnational nature of the issue and the need for a comprehensive regional approach. However, the momentum behind the Bali Declaration and the internal review that followed in 2016 has since eased. The Consultation Mechanism and Task Force on Planning and Preparedness (TFPP) have not generated more coordinated regional responses, with the response to distressed boats in November and December 2022 being slow and disjointed.

With more Rohingya refugees attempting to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea by boat, a more comprehensive regional response is needed. The Bali Process could be a platform for exploring regional coordination that addresses issues of migration, security, smuggling, human trafficking, humanitarianism, and human rights. Civil society actors and U.N. agencies have developed concrete recommendations for Bali Process reform, and the upcoming Ministerial Conference presents an opportunity to renew the commitment to regional cooperation on irregular movement.

In addition to preventing further loss of life, there are compelling reasons for the Bali Process co-chairs to heed calls for reform and encourage members to recommit to regional cooperation. For Australia, reinvigorating the Bali Process to support countries impacted by irregular movement could foster goodwill and dispel the notion that Australia’s interests in the Bali Process are self-serving rather than rooted in solidarity and responsibility sharing.

Furthermore, as Indonesia takes the helm of ASEAN in 2023 and confronts ongoing political turmoil in Myanmar and the stalling of the Five-Point Consensus, the Bali Process offers an opportunity for regional action that may elude a divided ASEAN. While addressing the root causes of the situation in Myanmar may be difficult, the Bali Process can still play a crucial role in coordinating responses to forced displacement from Myanmar, leveraging the resources of member countries and ensuring fair distribution of responsibility for rescuing and receiving refugees and providing them with protection. Indonesia, in its dual role as Bali Process co-chair and ASEAN chair, is ideally positioned to link up relevant ASEAN structures and Bali Process mechanisms, an approach it presented at the December 6 Ad Hoc Group Senior Officials’ Meeting.

The Ministerial Conference taking place this week presents an opportunity to work towards a stronger Bali Process that can effectively address irregular movement challenges. This opportunity must not be overlooked.

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