Expert Interview – Elliot Brennan on The East Asia Summit and Addressing Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis

While much attention is accorded to Europe’s refugee crisis, Southeast Asia has also experienced large flows of migrants which led to crisis earlier this year when tens of thousands of economic migrants and Myanmar Muslims boarded vessels for neighboring countries. A daunting challenge for governments of the region, Elliot Brennan sheds light on the pressing issue of irregular maritime migration ahead of the East Asia Summit on November 21-22 in Kuala Lumpur. He argues that the forthcoming Summit represents a decisive opportunity to lay a framework to address the issue.

In 2014 and 2015, Southeast Asia has encountered a surge in irregular maritime migration, reaching crisis point in May this year. How does Southeast Asia’s irregular migration crisis compare to global trends and that in Europe?

This year has seen a tipping point with global attention trained on irregular mass migrations, both those fleeing from conflict and those searching for better economic opportunities. It is a trend that will continue. Indeed, irregular migration will be one of the key driving megatrends over the next decade, and for the foreseeable future.

Yet despite the very present concerns of large, unplanned flows – this is, “irregular” migration – most countries have been woefully unprepared. With few exceptions, Europe as a whole is struggling in its attempts to lead from the front on the issue. While Europe captures the headlines for flows of migrants from Africa and those fleeing the war in Syria, Southeast Asia’s experience of irregular migration in recent years has been equally concerning and often as deadly. Since 2014, an estimated 94,000 people have disembarked from ports in Bangladesh and Myanmar. More than 1,100 people have lost their lives at sea. Over the past decade, furthermore, millions of undocumented migrants have sought better job opportunities or fled conflict and persecution.

What the two regions have in common is that they are both struggling to address the problem by the most effective means, at a regional level.

What are the drivers for such irregular migration in Southeast Asia?

There are numerous “pull” factors for economic migration across the region. The need for low-skilled labor in Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Singapore has attracted millions of undocumented migrants over the past decade. The tacit acceptance of some governments to “look the other way” to fill low-skilled labor positions has supported the rise of trafficking syndicates and corruption, as well as the resulting ripple effect of criminality that both bring.

Similarly, large and often well-established diasporas in Southeast Asian states support perceptions of potential economic opportunity for prospective migrants. Greater interconnectivity between these communities and prospective migrants via social media, and the Internet in general, are supporting such narratives.

Those embarking on the voyage across the Bay of Bengal usually pay around US$50 to board a traffickers’ vessel. However, reports in the past 12 months have showed that traffickers often then demand thousands of dollars more for disembarkation, holding their human cargo until “ransom” money is paid. If such ransom money isn’t paid, migrants have then been sold into slavery, for example onto fishing trawlers and into prostitution.

Conflict and persecution continue to act as powerful “push” factors in the region and have in recent years created acute refugee crises. Similarly, inequality of wealth and public services such as health and education in the region continue to drive people from places of less opportunity toward places of greater opportunity.

Why are existing approaches and efforts to control the issue failing?

Exacerbating these drivers are a number of issues. Certainly, the greater connectivity between Southeast Asia’s diverse ethnic communities has made prospective migrants more aware of opportunities abroad. This connectivity has similarly aided traffickers, who can more effectively reach a larger audience and target more susceptible groups.

But the inability of states to counter the narratives of traffickers and inform prospective economic migrants of the dangers of such maritime migration, as well as to inform them of legal avenues for migration, have further worsened the problem.

These trends have also been exacerbated by short-sighted domestic policies toward irregular migration. States in need of low-skilled workers have been lax in both enforcing border control and in investing and building the capacity of adequate coast guard forces. Other policies, such as Malaysia’s visa-free travel for people from Muslim-countries that led many from Iraq and Iran to use Malaysia as a launch pad for irregular maritime migration to Australia, have further proliferated the notion that irregular and undocumented migration is a plausible alternative to regular, documented migration.

How prominent will the issue of irregular maritime migration be on the agenda at the East Asia Summit?

Despite much high-level discussion on the issue during the May migrant crisis, which saw thousands of irregular maritime migrants stuck at sea, there has been little actionable agreement on a framework to tackle incidents of acute crisis or to address the issue of irregular migration more generally.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Thailand, as well as rising tensions in Bangladesh and Myanmar, have propelled counter-terrorism efforts onto the forefront of the agenda. Public concerns that jihadi groups could use such travel routes to deploy operatives and launch attacks should be a driver for cooperation on the issue. Tackling trafficking and smuggling routes is key to securing borders and ensuring the integrity of states. Indeed, “regulating conditions of access” is one of the key functions of politics and government. Irregular migration erodes the integrity of states and, as shown in recent events, creates a type of political quicksand for sitting governments.

Addressing irregular migration, particular migration via often dangerous maritime routes, should be a high priority at the East Asia Summit. Only a regional approach that includes joint coast guard patrols, joint Search and Rescue operations, accelerated processing, and an adequate funding pool can be successful. Individual states cannot bear the weight of large flows of irregular maritime migrants in times of acute crisis, as seen in 2014 and 2015. Similarly, a regional approach is needed to break the trafficking rings that profit and proliferate criminality through the region.

What are the most important steps that need to be taken to address and mitigate the issue at the East Asia Summit?

The East Asia Summit offers the right framework for further discussion on a key non-traditional security issue that will continue to impact states and frustrate incumbent governments for the foreseeable future. An “in principle” agreement at the Summit could pave the way for deeper and more detailed work at the Bali Process Ministerial Meeting in early 2016. Any such agreement should seek to include a commitment of funds for an emergency processing mechanism of irregular migrants. Funds should be directed toward improving facilities and states’ ability to quickly process those with international protection needs in disembarkation countries. It should also address the urgent need for improved data collection and sharing as well as the need for improved monitoring efforts of irregular maritime movements for evidence-based policymaking. In this regard, a regional database should be made available.

Looking ahead, the Bali Process offers one of the few frameworks to which all states concerned are members (including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, China, Australia, and all ASEAN States). This as well as the International Maritime Organization should be vehicles for the creation of a strategy to address acute crisis situations such as occurred in 2015.

Elliot Brennan is a non-resident Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum – Center for Strategic & International Studies in Honolulu, USA.