AT 5am on Easter Sunday, Australian politician Tim Watts kissed his children goodbye and left for Melbourne airport to fly to Jakarta.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP) Federal parliamentarian sought to witness first-hand the “refugee experience in Southeast Asia,” through a self-funded, two-week trip through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).
“The global refugee defining humanitarian crisis of our times,” Watts said at his office in Footscray, inner Melbourne during a phone interview with Asian Correspondent shortly after returning home.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to 7.7 million people of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with most refugees originating from Afghanistan and Burma.
“There is a tendency for the focus to fall on the war in Syria,” he said, adding this has “crowded out attention on the crisis in our own neighbourhood.”
Australia’s ‘tough’ approach to asylum seekers
While Australia’s resettlement programme through the UNHCR is relatively generous – ranking in the top three resettlement countries internationally since 1977 – it has instead become known for its treatment of asylum seekers, particularly those who have attempted to arrive at its borders by boat.
Revelations of abuse at Australia’s offshore processing facilities for asylum seekers on the tiny Pacific state of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, including of children, have garnered sustained condemnation from human rights groups and the UN.
Australia’s approach has become an “icon” for a growing number of anti-immigration political parties and far-right nationalist groups in Europe.
In this context, Watts’ decision to raise awareness of the plight of asylum seekers in Australia’s neighbouring countries goes against the grain of the political status quo.
The refugee experience
In Southeast Asia, only the Philippines and Cambodia have ratified the Refugee Convention – neither of whom have ever resettled significant numbers of refugees.
Most Asean nations thus have no international legal obligation to fulfil the basic rights of people in prolonged transit, such as education and work, leaving asylum seekers and refugees vulnerable to poverty, exploitation and chronic boredom.
The biggest challenges in Asia are “the sheer number of asylum seekers” and a growing “extension of the period of transition” between fleeing one’s country of origin and being resettled in a third country, said Watts.
For young men, he said, this can “easily” be a 10-year wait.
In Indonesia, Watts visited volunteer-run schools for asylum seeker and refugee children in Jakarta and Cisarua, about two hours south of the capital. Some 14,000 refugee asylum seekers are currently residing across the archipelago.
Cisarua, West Java, has become home to an estimated two to three thousand refugees, predominantly from the persecuted Hazara minority from Afghanistan. The Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, which was established in 2014, provides education to around 100 children.
Watts told Asian Correspondent,
“We need to ensure waiting time is not wasted time.”
Asylum seekers in Southeast Asia can be “arrested, prosecuted and detained and they have no legal right to work and provide for themselves,” said Sarah Carter, the manager of the Australian Aid & Parliament Project for Save the Children Australia, who accompanied Watts on his journey.
Save the Children – which have worked with people seeking asylum in Australia’s detention centres and last year released a report into the journey of children crossing the Andaman sea from Burma – organised the logistical aspects of the trip.
“A significant proportion of the thousand or so children in immigration detention in Indonesia have self-reported to these squalid and overcrowded detention centres, just so they can access food and shelter,” she told Asian Correspondent.
The Rohingya crisis
As of March 2017, there were more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. An estimated 90 percent of them come from Burma and many have lived in Malaysia for generations.
“We’ve somehow become fixated on the idea of a huge number of refugees waiting for an opportunity to come to Australia by boat, but that certainly wasn’t our experience when speaking to the Rohingya refugee community,” Carter said.
In Kuala Lumpur, Watts visited the Pima refugee learning centre run by Muslim Aid in partnership with the UNHCR. Of the 11,000 school-age refugee children in Malaysia, only around 30 percent currently have access to education.
The world has turned its attention to the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine State since a military crackdown began last October. The remaining 1.1 million Rohingya in Burma live in repressive conditions, with 120,000 people residing in Internally Displaced Persons camps.
The UN has claimed more than 1,000 Rohingya have been killed in the army’s operations in Rakhine, and at least 70,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since late 2016.
The path to fleeing persecution, however, is often equally dire. Trafficking routes in the Andaman Sea are “absolutely horrific,” said Watts, citing hundreds of deaths at sea and in secret camps in Burma used by people smugglers.
“It’s no exaggeration to say they were death camps.” – Watts
The Rohingya refugee crisis is “incredibly sensitive politically,” said Carter, “complex in a way that is distinctly different to other ethnic refugee groups.”
“There’s a very real chance many Rohingya won’t ever be able to return home so the pressure on countries in Southeast Asia and Australia, is mounting.”
Can the region work together on refugees?
There are “real reasons for optimism for regional humanitarian frameworks”, said Watts, citing Indonesia’s recent presidential decree on asylum seekers, Malaysia’s pilot programme to allow Rohingya refugees to work legally and Thailand’s steps towards recognition of asylum seeker status.
Even the Burmese government’s response to the interim findings of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, the so-called Annan Report, provides “some reasons for encouragement,” he said.
Australia’s role is “supporting these practical, organic efforts in these countries,” he thinks, by increasing its monetary contribution to the UNHCR.
Watts points to Australia’s funding of a refugee identification card in Malaysia, which has been “instrumental to implementing work rights.”
“There aren’t many issues I deal with as a Federal Member of Parliament that have life or death consequences,” said Watts, noting the current largest resettlement country, the United States, will reduce 60,000 places for refugees under the Trump administration.
“Our response to the international humanitarian crisis has consequences.”