The Migration Crisis – ASEAN’s Challenging Agenda

The chairmanship of ASEAN, the regional bloc, is rotated amongst member countries on a yearly basis. This year Singapore assumed the role of ASEAN chair for a year, taking over from the Philippines.

In November 2017, when the Prime Minister (PM) of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, symbolically took over the ASEAN chairmanship from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, he set out Singapore’s priorities as Chair.

The theme for this year’s agenda is, [to be] “Resilient and Innovative.” PM Lee highlighted that during its chairman-ship, Singapore will focus on achieving the following goals:

  • Promoting and supporting a rules-based regional order to better deal with evolving security challenges such as cyber security, transnational crime and terrorism
  • Developing innovative methods to effectively utilise digital technologies and prepare ASEAN citizens with skills and capabilities to manage these technological advancements
  • Strengthening the region’s economic and financial resilience and at the same time deepening ASEAN’s relationship with external powers, and
  • Pushing forward ASEAN trade negotiations particularly the realisation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

PM Lee opined that ASEAN is the central and dynamic force in the region that can help overcome challenges and create opportunities. Specifically, he congratulated the Philippines for establishing the framework for the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Singapore’s goals are indeed in line with emerging security threats and challenges in the region and seek to help protect and reduce the consequences they have on member countries. In addition, they could perhaps even be extended to deal with sensitive challenges that have persisted over the years. Some of these is-sues have worsened over time, impacting an increasing number of ASEAN citizens.

One such challenge is the migration crisis in Myanmar. In the last 3 years, the humanitarian situation in the country has deteriorated significantly, and the tensions be-tween Myanmar’s security forces and the Rohingya Muslims have intensified. More and more people from Rakhine state are being dis-placed either within Myanmar or in neighbouring Bangladesh. Many who are and have been affected by the violence in the state have also made the perilous journey through the seas during the “sailing season”, to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia adding to the number of cases of human trafficking. The renewed violence, including reported rapes, murders and arson cases in 2017 have trig-gered a massive exodus of Rohingya Muslims. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of 11 December 2017, 860,000 refugees from Myanmar have crossed over to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. 646,000 of these refugees, mostly women and children have arrived since 25 August 2017.

Thailand has also carried the bur-den of the migration crisis in My-anmar. It has been the long-standing hub for human trafficking networks bringing Rohingya refu-gees and economic migrants from Bangladesh to Malaysia and other countries in the region. Although figures of human trafficking in the region have not been monitored, the discovery of trafficking camps and mass graves of the Rohingya people and other illegal migrants in Southern Thailand, clearly indi-cate the impact of the crisis on other countries in the region. Many of these deaths were a result of traffickers abandoning boats of refugees and migrants in the wa-ters, with little food or water.

What role can Singapore play, as Chair, to provide the necessary support to overcome the challeng-es posed by the crisis in Myan-mar? As ASEAN Chair, Singapore could work with ASEAN members and encourage them to help man-age the crisis in Myanmar. Situa-tions of such human insecurities, as what we are witnessing now, vis-à-vis the Rohingyas, tend to breed other forms of instability which could impact the entire re-gion. For example, the violence in Myanmar has started to radicalise certain communities, and there have been reports about emerging links between insurgencies in the country and other extremist outfits

across the world. The transnational nature of multiple insurgent net-works should be a concern for all ASEAN member countries as it is a national as well as regional security threat. At this point in time, more than ever, ASEAN governments need to stand together to pay attention to the migration crisis in the region and work hand-in-hand towards a truly integrated, peaceful, stable, people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN community.