As the world continues to become closer through advancements in transportation and communication, we are unfortunately living in a time where many countries' leaders, politicians and citizens are increasingly looking to insulate their countries from those seeking safety and security.
Although the contributing factors towards migration may differ, the constant is that all too often, migration is not voluntary. When people who feel forced to uproot their lives and accept so many risks, this surely indicates that the conditions they are trying to escape are beyond comprehension. As such, we must look to base our policies and how we treat them on this notion.
Whilst my wish is for countries around the world to revamp their refugee and immigration policies to offer protection to those seeking safe passage and resettlement, this is unfortunately an unrealistic expectation -- especially in the short term. It is more conceivable that governments operate within a basic framework of immigration and refugee protection, by providing inherent human rights to those seeking to live safely and peacefully.
One major change that governments must make is realising that forced migration does not pose a security risk. Refugees and migrants are not a threat to the receiving country -- putting others in danger would be in direct contrast to their best interests. Despite coming from diverse circumstances, and differing backgrounds is not a cause for turning people away.
For example, regarding Thailand and Myanmar, we all belong to the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) community. Our brothers and sisters should not be viewed with apprehension but rather welcomed in times of need.
Even when borders are ostensibly open, refugees and asylum seekers constantly face roadblocks. When entering a country, travel documentation is understandably required. However, this requirement does not take into account that people seeking safety often flee without warning, travel long distances through difficult environments, are forced to provide documents as collateral to untrustworthy overseers or travel from situations where obtaining documentation is not feasible.
In my vast experiences with refugees both as a bureaucrat and politician, I was fortunate to be part of successive governments that were educated and appreciated neighbours' struggles. When the Vietnamese were suffering through post-war issues including repression and starvation, the empathetic Thai government helped those who fled. This was a success that can and must be replicated. Our achievements came about because all parties were unified in a desire to help, and where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs played a leading role instead of acting as a hindrance.
As part of the regional response, I introduced the principle of shared responsibility i.e., that countries of origin, transit, and resettlement, as well as the international community, must all work in harmony. Within the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA), as a transit country, Thailand guaranteed the principle of non-refoulement. Meanwhile, Vietnam committed to honouring their responsibility to accept the repatriation of refugees desiring to return home. Finally, the international community provided financial assistance to the countries involved.
The CPA would not have been possible had governments and citizens not been educated about the plight of the Vietnamese Boat People. Prior to the CPA, Thai people were supportive of their government helping the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing civil wars in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam because they were knowledgeable of these situations. When people are aware of the struggles of others, the plight becomes real. When people see, hear, and read about the incomprehensible suffering, the struggle becomes their own. This is why today, it is essential the public be informed about the horrors faced by people from Myanmar, both in their country and throughout their travels to safety.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving the issues of forced migration. However, as the CPA showed, joint cooperation and information sharing among neighbouring countries and other interested stakeholders is necessary.
For example, law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia must focus on sharing information on trafficking networks, trafficking routes, and successful methods of prevention. Officials within the region should also utilise joint water and land patrols to help identify incidents of trafficking, while also protecting and helping prepare individuals for resettlement.
This, of course, would require a change in mentality, whereby victims of forced migration are not viewed as a threat but as fellow humans bringing economic and social contribution to the places they are found. Countries must recognise the positives that migration can bring and work together to realise these benefits.
Despite the causes of forced migration often being specific to countries of origin, the issues faced by those in transit can be mitigated. Law enforcement and other officials should be the first line of aid for forced migrants and personnel should be taught how to respond in such situations -- informed by a duty to humanity, rather than through a lens of perceived criminality. There is a stark difference between interviewing and interrogating.
This education and training, if done jointly within the region, can have immediate and long-lasting effects on victim recovery. Educating the public through awareness campaigns would also be instrumental in preventing trafficking before it can begin.
Spanning the decades of my career, I have been fortunate to help an incalculable number of people seeking peace, security, and prosperity. While my position within the Thai government and other organisations was important, what was essential was having an empathetic and caring government. None of our accomplishments would have been possible without having superiors and associates understanding the situation and providing the necessary tools to help.
While empathy itself cannot be taught, it grows from knowledge and understanding. The more that governments and society are willing to learn about our neighbours risking everything to seek shelter, safety and a chance to live peacefully, the better the world will be. We must have the heart for this.
Kasit Piromya is a Board Member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and is a former Thai foreign minister. This week, he delivers a Keynote Speech at the Regional Support Office of the Bali Process 2023 Constructive Dialogue.