Asean must address forced migration | Inquirer Opinion

Asean must address forced migration

In 2023, one in eight Rohingya refugees who undertook the perilous journey across the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal was reported to have died or gone missing. This makes it possibly the most dangerous refugee journey in the world.

It also highlights the desperation of those fleeing the crisis in Myanmar, as well as those fleeing violence and persecution from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Indeed, 2023 marked the deadliest year at sea in the region since the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis, in which thousands of Rohingya and Bengali refugees were stranded at sea, and a sorely inadequate regional response led to the deaths of hundreds. Most recently, a boat carrying 151 Rohingya refugees capsized off the coast of West Aceh on March 20. Only 75 were rescued.

Urgent action is needed to ensure these events are not repeated in 2024 and beyond.


The most pressing concern in the region is Myanmar where violent actions taken by the military against the Rohingya have been described as genocidal by the United Nations. Seven years after the mass exodus of Rohingya to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, conditions have only worsened, yet there is a glaring lack of coordinated effort to address the issue and save lives. This must change.

Asean is often seen as hesitant to tackle sensitive issues like refugees and forced migration, particularly given Myanmar’s membership in the 10-country bloc. To date, the bloc has primarily focused on combating human trafficking and migrant smuggling, aligning with a regional emphasis on rising transnational crime.

While some progress has been made, prioritizing national security over humanitarian protection and framing migration as a crime issue is unsustainable and fails to address the root causes of forced migration.

A recent stocktake by the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration (ADFM) secretariat shows that Asean already has many of the mechanisms to handle, prevent, and respond to forced migration if fully implemented.


For instance, the 2019 Asean Declaration on the Rights of Children in the Context of Migration explicitly includes provisions for refugee and asylum-seeking children, outlining alternatives to immigration detention, and ensuring access to education and health care. A 2023 Declaration on migrant workers also recognizes the need to “respond to the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all migrant workers, regardless of their migration status.”

While the new ADFM report identifies the opportunities provided by these existing mechanisms, it also highlights gaps—including an over-reliance on criminal justice over protection mechanisms, and limited civil society engagement. To address these gaps, we support six recommendations that build on existing processes and are achievable within a 10-year time frame. This work should start immediately.


First, Asean has a golden opportunity to focus on forced migration in its 20-year “Post-2025 Vision,” which will be announced while Malaysia is chair of Asean next year.

Second, Asean can boost “resilience and connectivity” by enabling legitimate access to livelihoods and education in Southeast Asia. While Southeast Asian nations often describe themselves as “transit” countries for refugees, in reality, they often live there for years and even decades.

It will benefit everyone if there are sufficient education and training pathways available for refugees to contribute to their host communities so that they are sufficiently equipped for employment in the countries they eventually settle.

Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, with aging populations and a reliance on migrant labor, could also benefit from a younger workforce composed of migrants and refugees. Not only would this address workforce shortages, it would boost economic growth and tax revenue.

Third, renewed attention and cooperation are needed for search and rescue at sea, particularly in light of recent tragic events. Asean already has effective search and rescue measures to respond to accidents and natural disasters that have been deployed successfully numerous times. It only makes sense to expand this framework to address refugee-related distress situations.

The final three recommendations are focused on building the necessary institutional changes, such as a ministerial dialogue, formal declaration, and expert forum. Together this would foster collaboration and effective policymaking, as well as solidify commitments to uphold humanitarian principles and improve regional responses.

Achieving this will take political will, but with Malaysia and the Philippines set to chair Asean over the next two years, and significant interest in these issues from Thailand and Indonesia, progress is possible.

Asean has the foundations to address forced migration effectively. What is needed now is the political will to act and the support of regional partners to implement these mechanisms and bring about real change. The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network


Andrew Hudson is international director at the Centre for Policy Development in Sydney, Australia. Dewi Fortuna Anwar is former deputy secretary for political affairs to the vice president of Indonesia.


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