Fresh look needed on refugees

The announcement on Friday from Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul that Rohingya who have washed up on Thai shores will be sheltered for another six months should be commended. Meanwhile, negotiations with Myanmar and other countries in the region to find a permanent settlement solution will be ongoing. Realistically, however, it is unlikely that this thorny issue will be resolved in six months. Thailand must be prepared to extend the arrangement for the approximately 1,400 Rohingya estimated to be in the country.

Predominantly Muslim members of Asean, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, should lead the way toward a solution, and it should be a priority at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's summit in Cairo next week.

The best solution would, of course, be for the Myanmar government to take responsibility for the Rohingya by granting them citizenship and assuring them protection against mobs who see them as a threat. Currently the government is denying the Rohingya nationality because it says they originally crossed the border illegally from Bangladesh, even though many have now been in the country for generations. The stance has brought harsh rebukes from humanitarian groups as well as from governments that are anxious to endorse Myanmar's reform process. But while the violence directed at Rohingya in Rakhine state, reportedly in many instances condoned by the authorities, should be thoroughly condemned, it must also be admitted that Myanmar is not alone in taking such a position. For example, there is little chance that Thailand will grant citizenship to the tens of thousands of Myanmar nationals who have crossed the border in recent decades for political and economic reasons.

There are important differences in the two situations, of course. While Myanmar has long been a source of refugees, Thailand has been a destination.

Thailand has received mixed marks in its handling of refugees over the years. Widely criticised for refusing to sign the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the country has nevertheless given refuge to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflicts and persecution in a very unsettled part of the world. There have been low points to be sure, and none lower than the failure to stop the horrid victimisation of Vietnamese boat people after the fall of Saigon by fishing boats in the Gulf of Thailand. The Rohingya are the new boat people, and so far they've fared better than their Vietnamese counterparts despite incidents in which they have been pushed back out to sea with few or no provisions. The Thai government is now trying to come to grips with this enormous problem in a humanitarian way. The question is how that can be done, and for how long, and it is one that is being asked around the world.

Rickety boats full of refugees from North Africa reach the shores of Italy every day to flood refugee camps, with the ultimate desired destination usually other EU countries. According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, in 2012 there were 172,000 refugees in need of resettlement, but only about 5,500 places for them. In some countries there has been a backlash that eerily resembles the supremacist attitudes of the Third Reich.

In the US the situation is somewhat better, but the days are long gone when the Statue of Liberty sent out the message to the world from New York Harbour to ''Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ...'', as immortalised in the poem by Emma Lazarus. Now some lawmakers are proposing to build a 3,000-kilometre long fence to keep Latin Americans out.

The point is that finding effective and fair solutions to the refugee problem, not just in Southeast Asia but worldwide, is one of the most difficult and important issues facing mankind today. Unfortunately the scale of the problem is likely to increase due not only to conflicts, but also displacement from climate change, population growth in a world of finite resources and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. It's time for a new way of thinking, one that doesn't shrink from radical solutions. For example, why not fund the purchase of large tracts of unoccupied land through international aid agencies and governments and assist these poor, huddled and unwanted masses in building their own sustainable communities, rather than relocating them to places where they are bound to occupy the lowest rungs of an economic and social order. Who knows, they just might come up with some answers for the rest of us.