The UN refugee agency has urged the new Burmese leadership to resume dialogue with Thailand and the UNHCR to end the decades-long saga of refugees along the border and give priority to the ethnic Rohingya issue as part of their nation-building process.
Assistant High Commissioner Volker Turk said he hoped Thailand, Burma and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can conclude a trilateral agreement in the next couple of years on voluntary repatriation of over 100,000 refugees still living in camps along the border.
“We have held a number of discussions and look forward to renewing dialogue with the new [Burmese] government,” said Turk.
He was speaking during a panel discussion on “Refugees in Europe and Beyond: Perspectives and Solutions” in Bangkok. Speaking at the same function, Jesus Miguel Sanz, European Union ambassador to Thailand, said he looked forward to durable solutions for the border refugees as the EU was the biggest donor for the border camps.
Turk also said the Bali Process, a voluntary forum for countries in the region to deal with people smuggling and human trafficking, should focus more on people rather than the security aspects of irregular migration and refugee issues.
He said the regional approach has borne little fruit as “no country alone can address the refugee crises such as the Syrian and the Rohingya issues”.
Border restrictions in one country had an impact on another country and the plight of individual refugees. “So, collaborations such as the Bali Process were helpful,” Turk said.
However, he asked countries in the region to think of alternative resources because the UN is also having to put money into the grave Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.
But the lesson learned from Europe is that rescue operations saved the lives of Syrian refugees while Southeast Asia was reluctant to launch sea rescues, and in fact expedited a push-back policy against the Rohingya, he said.
“It took quite a while before the region took to helping them [Rohingya] from the sea,” Mr Turk said.
In 2015 alone, the UNHCR estimated that at least 33,600 refugees and migrants travelled through Southeast Asia. The refugee crisis that erupted in May last year saw thousands of people from Burma and Bangladesh stranded in rickety boats, pushed back from the safety of shore and trafficked into forced labour or killed at sea.
But the region should not focus solely on security aspects, like dealing with smuggling, but also address human security protection for the refugees, such as providing them with a place to stay while waiting for resettlement and repatriation.
He hoped the new government in Burma would give the Rohingya issue top priority in its nation-building mission. “It’s a long-standing discussion about who belongs to a nation. The issue of Rohingya is perhaps more complicated and complex than that of the refugees from eastern [Burma] along the Thai border,” he said.
The panel discussion was held ahead of the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process starting today on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, Chulalongkorn University law professor and member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said Southeast Asia had faced dire refugee situations before and there were several lessons learned from the handling of Syrian refugees in Europe.
On the Rohingya, Vitit said a recent UN panel of religious leaders called for dialogue with Burmese authorities to address the issue of the ethnic group’s residency and citizenship through official documents or birth and school certificates.
While looking into Rohingya matters, they should not forget there are 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thai border camps as well, whose plight also needs addressing. Vitit called for Thailand not to wait for the trilateral agreement but to pursue a nationality screening process with the UNHCR’s participation.