I was invited to participate in the Australian-ASEAN Youth Forum organised by the Asia Education Foundation and held at Kirwan High School on Friday 20 October.
The Australia-ASEAN Youth Forum brought together 65 students from four schools to discuss key issues facing Southeast Asia from the perspectives of ASEAN member states and Australia. ASEAN member states are Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Students worked together in teams of six, and their task was to represent their allocated country’s leaders in discussing three contemporary regional issues: refugees, climate change and trade.
(Photo: Delegates address the opening plenary at the Australian-ASEAN Youth Forum)
In the first plenary session of the Forum, each team presented their allocated country’s position on the three issues. We then broke into three groups (two students from each country team per group) to debate ways to address these issues in more depth and try to reach mutually agreeable solutions through negotiation and consensus building. My role was to facilitate the Committee session on Refugee Issues.
As part of their presentation for the Refugee Committee discussion students were challenged to “walk in the shoes” of their allocated country. In preparing for my role I engaged in the same process and was surprised by what I discovered.
I was shocked to find that there are an estimated two million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia with some sources suggesting that there might be as many as six million undocumented people resident in the country. Of these, there are 150,000 asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This situation is tolerated by the government as it means that there is a vast pool of cheap labour available to Malaysian industry. The downside for the workers is that as they are undocumented, they are vulnerable to exploitation and other forms of human rights abuse.
Thailand faces a similar scenario to Malaysia – Thailand is home to an estimated 600,000 refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people.
Faced with these overwhelming numbers Malaysia and Thailand must be amazed by the inability of the Australian Government to compassionately manage the estimated 30,000 people on bridging visas and the thousand or so incarcerated in off shore detention centres. The impression given by our Government and the popular media is that Australia is the only country in the region with a refugee problem. How far from the truth is that!
Myanmar is the main generator of refugees in our region. The UN estimates that 420,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the last two months following persecution by the Burmese Army. More than a million Rohingya now live in the countries in the region – mainly Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. There has been strong condemnation of Myanmar’s policies from the UN and human rights NGOs but the ASEAN countries have not said much on the issue.
I was impressed by the approach taken by the delegates in the Refugee Committee. At the commencement of the session delegates agreed that the greatest human rights issue facing the region was the treatment of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar Government. There was division in the room as to how best address this issue. Malaysia wanted a strong condemnation of Myanmar’s policies from other ASEAN members while some other countries counselled a more cautious approach. As time was limited in the session, the decision was made to concentrate on issues where there was some prospect of agreement. Delegates also agreed to widen the focus to refugees, people seeking asylum and stateless people.
Each delegation was invited to nominate one issue of concern.
Philippines spoke first suggesting that there was a need for a regional approach to protecting refugees and people seeking asylum as there had been in the 1970s at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Malaysia understandably expressed concern at the numbers of people seeking safety in their country.
All delegations agreed that member states needed to reassess their commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention – currently of the ten ASEAN member countries, only Cambodia and Philippines are signatories. Other issues included the financial burden of caring for refugees and stateless people, the vulnerability of undocumented workers, and Australia’s fear of being overrun by people seeking asylum.
In the final session of the Forum, the five resolutions proposed by the Refugee Committee were adopted unanimously by the the member states and these are included below. I came away from the Forum convinced that if national leaders in the “real” world could find the compassion and empathy shown by these students, we might begin to address problems that at the moment appear to be insurmountable.