“Do not come here”

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, warned illegal economic migrants not to come to Europe. “Do not believe the smugglers”, he said. “Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing.”

Mr Tusk is the chair of the council that consists of the heads-of-government of the 28 member states of the European Union (EU). He was in Greece and Turkey last week as part of a new push, on the part of the EU, to solve the migrant crisis facing the continent.

His comments also follow the tear-gassing of hundreds of migrants at the border of Macedonia last Monday (29 February), who were storming in from Greece. The images of migrants being tear-gassed at the borders of the EU sent a disturbing message, as highlighted by the medical humanitarian organisation Médecins sans Frontières.

The debate has been over “burden sharing” between the member states of the EU, and of the EU’s internal borders. EU border countries like Greece have borne the brunt of the influx of migrants, which Greece cannot handle. It is countries like Germany that these migrants really want to go eventually. But EU countries had been reintroducing border controls, where none exist previously within most of the EU. The Schengen Agreement, enacted in 1995, had made the EU a borderless region.

That is why most migrants and refugees coming from war-torn countries like Syria have remained in countries like Greece.

A Southeast Asian crisis too?

Southeast Asia is certainly not immune to refugee or migrant crises. By one reckoning, the scale of the crisis is almost comparable to Europe’s.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or the UNHCR, there were more than 520,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the year 2014. Additionally, there were nearly 1.4 million stateless persons and an estimated 20,000 irregular maritime migrants in the region.

They come mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq, seeking to reach Australia by way of Indonesia. The issue has long been a sore point between Australia and Indonesia.

But the greater crisis that pertains to the region of Southeast Asia, arguably, is that of the Rohingyas from Rakhine State of western Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis – a long running issue too. The latest crisis point was in May 2015, when thousands of refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar were stranded at sea close to Thailand.

That same month, dozens of graves containing bodies of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees were found in an abandoned jungle camp in southern Thailand, in an area known to be used by people smugglers.

ASEAN member states have indeed shown before that they can work together during previous refugee crises, most notably during the crisis of 1975 to 1995 in Indochina. Some 1.4 million refugees had fled war-torn Cambodia and Vietnam, seeking asylum in neighbouring countries.

But ASEAN still lacks a regional refugee framework, especially when it comes to the issue of “burden sharing”, as in the EU case. This could prove problematic if the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia worsens, and in the event that the numbers of refugees soar beyond what is currently being witnessed.