JAKARTA – An international forum aimed at combatting human trafficking agreed Wednesday to establish a regional mechanism to handle issues relating to asylum seekers and refugees, less than a year after a boat people crisis in Southeast Asia.
In May last year, thousands of people — mostly Bangladeshis and persecuted Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar — became stranded at sea after Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 370 people died at sea during the crisis.
Indonesia and Australia co-chaired the Bali Process summit that saw the ministerial declaration adopted Wednesday.
In a statement, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that the newly-established mechanism will enable the co-chairs to develop “communications with related countries, including the origin country, transit country and destination country in any emergency situations.”
She and Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, said the agreements focused on the need for a comprehensive regional approach based on the principles of burden sharing and collective responsibility.
“The Bali Process emphasized the need to seek the safety and protection of migrants and victims of transnational crime and to support efforts to resolve the root causes, including providing support for the country of origin through international organizations,” Marsudi said.
The declaration adopted by the 45 member countries said that they “intend to scale up public information campaigns to raise awareness and the serious determination of law enforcement authorities to bring smugglers and traffickers to justice.”
Bishop was quoted by Tempo.co as saying that human trafficking could result in losses worth $150 billion a year.
“We [Australia] share information and cooperate in investigations. We will continue to build the capacity of law and law enforcement throughout the criminal justice program in Australia,” she added.
The director of multilateral affairs for Indonesia’s foreign ministry said the Bali Declaration consisted of 14 points including commitments to campaigns, victim-focused responses to human trafficking and the establishment of a regional mechanism for responding to emergency situations.
Metro TV quoted Hasan Kleib as saying that the five countries at the center of last year’s crisis — Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia — had previously lacked a unified mechanism to resolve such issues.
“With this mechanism, if there is an emergency case the ‘co-chairs’ can take a step and invite the countries involved to sit together in a political framework to find a way out of the problems,” he said.
Amid last year’s crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia had announced they would take those they considered to be refugees – predominantly Rohingya – in for one year before the international community found homes for them, while those classified as economic migrants – predominantly Bangladeshi – would be repatriated.
Indonesia had taken in 1,000 persecuted Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants.
According to the International Organization for Migration, however, only 300 of the Rohingya remain in shelters in the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh while the majority are believed to have escaped to travel to Malaysia.
Meanwhile, around 700 Bangladeshis have been repatriated.
The declaration adopted Wednesday has been welcomed by the United Nations’ refugee agency as “a strong sign” of deep commitment “to addressing the regional challenges of mixed migration at a time of massive forced displacement around the world.”
“With more than 60 million people forcibly displaced from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Burundi, no country or region is immune from the aspects, and combating smuggling and trafficking,” the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection said in a statement.
“This will only work, however, if it goes hand-in-hand with a clear and unequivocal human security impact,” Volker Turk added.
The statement also expressed optimism about possible solutions to the migrant issue, as Myanmar is set to swear in a new government led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s former opposition party.
The Rohingya — an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar’s western Arakan (Rakhine) state who face persecution at homeland— have for years utilized smugglers to take them by boat from Bangladesh to Thailand and beyond.
“We hope that a tripartite agreement involving Thailand, Myanmar, and UNHCR will eventually pave the way for the voluntary repatriation of the Myanmar refugees along the Thai/Myanmar border,” Turk said Wednesday.
“We also hope that the situation in Arakan (Rakhine) State will be stabilized satisfactorily for all residents on its territory, not least in an effort to address some of the drivers and root causes of displacement,” he added.
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