Refugees and the Rebalancing of State and Human Security in Europe and Southeast Asia

Baroness Valerie Amos, the former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and Ms. Janet Lim, the previous Assistant High Commissioner (Operations) of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, referenced Europe’s reduced human security ambitions at seminars here at RSIS last month. Comparing the EU’s response to the ongoing crisis in Rakhine state, Myanmar, with its actions during the refugee crisis on its door-step, demonstrate what this means in practice.On 23 October 2017 in Geneva, the EU co-hosted an event for Rohingya refugees fleeing Rakhine state, and promised €30 million in aid on top of the €21 million already pledged this year. The funding is intended for the 900,000 Rohingya currently estimated by the EU to have fled, as well as the 300,000 Bangladeshi host population in the Cox’s Bazaar area to provide emergency shelter, food and health assistance.

In 2016, the EU agreed a deal with neighbouring Turkey for €6 billion to handle the influx of an estimated 2.2 million asylum seekers trying to reach Europe. These massively imbalanced donations for comparable crises demonstrate at best a limited human security motivation: a little over twice as many are people seeking asylum in Europe, but the EU is dedicating more than 117 times as much money.

The widely noted terms of this EU-Turkey deal further underscore this conclusion. The agreement has meant sending those arriving “irregularly” in Greece back to Turkey, despite concerns over their safety once they return. Amnesty International reports subsequent cases of refoulement in which asylum seekers have been returned once more to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where they risk serious human rights violations. Nonetheless, the EU is reportedly considering this cash-for-containment model for places with even more dubious records, including Libya.

Institutional aid generally comes with political considerations. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the EU is giving more to address an issue with direct local implications. But these two agreements suggest a substantial minimisation of concern with human security, together with a significant rebalancing towards using EU member-states as principle security referents. This is reminiscent of debates here in Southeast Asia.

The human security doctrine has penetrated institutions in this region to some extent. The 2007 ASEAN Charter and the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration attest to this. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Affairs on disaster management’s (AHA Centre) recent involvement in providing aid to those affected by conflict in Marawi City, Philippines, and in Rakhine State, Myanmar – beyond its conventional natural disaster experience thus far– provides some evidence of practical implications. However, it is likely to be commitments at national level that will ultimately determine the protection of human security here. The treatment of several minority groups in the region – including Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, and Muslims in the Philippines – often justified through appeal to state security, demonstrate the tensions that remain between using the state or the human as a security referent in countries in this region.

In their seminars, both Baroness Amos and Ms. Lim contrasted the role of Europe during their careers at the United Nations with its current positioning. Europe has historically exercised exaggerated influence in the institutions and doctrines that frame human security. With the EU pivoting back towards a state-focus in security policy articulation, Europe and Southeast Asia may now be pursuing a similar balance. If this is the case, it could conceivably produce greater cooperation between the two regions on security articulation, or an overall retrenchment on human security, or even both together. In other words, there may be both threats and opportunities for proponents of the human security concept.