Asia giants quiet as migrant crisis worsens
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Asia giants quiet as migrant crisis worsens

When a deadly earthquake rocked Nepal in April, China and India rushed to send relief supplies and search-and-rescue teams. But when another humanitarian crisis - boats bearing thousands of migrants - appeared off Southeast Asian shores a month later, Asia's two most populous countries said and did little. Instead, offers to resettle the migrants came from Gambia and the United States.

The wealthiest nations in the Asia-Pacific region stood back as well. Australia declared it would not resettle the migrants, mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar or poor Bangladeshis seeking jobs. Japan pledged $3.5 million (118 million baht) in emergency assistance but also refrained from offering to take in any displaced people.

More than a month after Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide temporary shelter for up to 7,000 of the migrants stranded at sea, there has been no sign of progress in finding them a permanent home, nor any hint that Myanmar would address the conditions driving the Rohingya exodus. And Asia's most powerful nations are essentially sitting out the crisis.

Their passivity is all the more striking because, halfway around the world, European leaders have been actively debating a response to their own migrant crisis, in which more than 1,700 people from Africa and the Middle East have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India often present their nations as emerging global powers, promoting regional cooperation. Both countries also share a border with Myanmar and enjoy economic leverage as major trading partners, and in China's case, as a top source of foreign investment.

But neither has pressured the government on its treatment of the Rohingya or played a significant role in efforts to resettle them. During a meeting of the UN Security Council last month, China insisted that the matter was an internal one for Myanmar to resolve.

"The Rohingya issue is a complex multilateral issue," said Zachary Abuza, an analyst with the consultancy firm Southeast Asia Analytics. The governments in Southeast Asia "want it to go away, but they are unwilling to solve it. China and India could play leadership roles but see it as a losing issue that would diminish their clout and bilateral interests. No country has more leverage over Myanmar than China, even if it's diminished in the past four years", he added. But China sees the Rohingya problem "as such a toxic one in Southeast Asia that it is unwilling to make a deal of the issue. There is no political upside".

India has helped absorb past waves of refugees fleeing border wars and political repression in Myanmar, providing sanctuary to Burmese pro-democracy activists through decades of military rule, for example. It also hosts more than 10,000 Rohingya who fled earlier spates of violence against them. But India has refrained from criticising Myanmar and adopted a policy of grudging tolerance toward Rohingya arrivals rather than engagement, analysts and refugee advocates said. Some government officials have expressed fear that Rohingya Muslims in India might be infiltrated by jihadists. 

"India sort of stayed away from this whole thing, and that is disappointing," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the most recent crisis. "India wants to be more careful in maintaining its strategic and economic influence" over neighbours rather than criticise them over human rights issues, she said.

Michel Gabaudan, president of the advocacy group Refugees International, based in Washington, said India was distrustful of the international refugee process in part because it had received little recognition for taking in refugees, including more than 100,000 Tibetans from China and another 100,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka. "India has taken refugees when it made political sense, but not out of a sense of international obligation," he said.

Many in India and elsewhere in the region consider the problem of refugees to be a legacy of Western imperialism and colonial-era borders. The origins of the current crisis, for example, can be traced to 1974, when the Burmese military government asserted that the Rohingya were economic migrants who had travelled to Myanmar during British rule and stripped them of citizenship.

As a result, Mr Gabaudan said, there is a sense that responsibility for refugees rests with the West and institutions such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Only a handful of nations in Asia are among the 148 countries that are parties to the main international conventions that protect refugees. "Generally speaking, there is a lack of state responsibility for refugee protection in Asia," said Brian Barbour, director of external relations at the Japan Association for Refugees. "Most countries in the region believe that they should be praised for hosting such large numbers of refugees, not criticised for refusing to grant asylum or allow refugees to locally integrate."

During the last major refugee crisis in Asia, which began in the mid-1970s, more than 3 million people fled war in Indochina - Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - and arrived in destinations across Southeast Asia that grew increasingly unwilling to accept them, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. At an international conference in 1979, governments in the region agreed to admit the refugees temporarily only after the rest of the world promised to assume most of the costs and to resettle them elsewhere.

More than 1 million people were resettled in the United States, with large populations going to Australia and Canada as well. Much smaller populations were resettled in Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines. China resettled 260,000 ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam at the time. In the preceding decades, it also took in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese fleeing discrimination and violence in Indonesia and Malaysia, and earlier this year, it offered temporary refuge for ethnic Chinese known as the Kokang who fled fighting in their home state in northeastern Myanmar.

But the Rohingya and other refugee populations that are not of Chinese ethnicity are less of a concern to Beijing, said Yun Sun, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has studied China and refugee issues. She said Beijing helped ethnic Chinese refugees out of a sense of "amity", but only if such assistance was not politically costly. "Beijing doesn't want to be seen as interfering with other countries' internal affairs," she said.

Unlike India, China ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. But it limits registration of refugees and restricts access by the United Nations' refugee agency to populations in China. The government has also refused to protect North Koreans who cross the border as refugees, treating them instead as economic migrants subject to forced repatriation.

"The domestic priority is internal stability," said Alistair DB Cook, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Mr Cook said an emphasis on noninterference in Asia has meant that the only countries in the region that have responded to the migration crisis are those that had migrants leave or come ashore. "Essentially what we see now, we see going as far back as the Indochinese exodus," he said. "How states responded then and how they respond now, there hasn't been too much change."

What has changed, however, is the economic strength of the region, which has enjoyed several decades of rapid growth since the Vietnam War. Many countries in Asia are much richer than they were 40 years ago, suggesting at least greater financial capacity to assist refugees. While countries such as Thailand and the Philippines provide temporary sanctuary for migrants fleeing persecution, Japan is the only nation in Asia that has accepted refugees for resettlement through the United Nations' refugee agency. Since beginning the programme in 2010, though, Japan has resettled only 18 refugee families, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Even Australia, long a destination for migrants seeking safety and a better life, has taken a tougher stance against asylum seekers. After as many as 880 people drowned trying to reach the continent in 2012, the government adopted a policy of intercepting migrants at sea and turning them back, or holding them indefinitely at offshore detention centres and, most recently, flying them to countries willing to take them for a fee.

Earlier this month, an Indonesian smuggler said the Australian authorities had given him and his crew more than $30,000 in cash to take their cargo of 65 migrants to Indonesia, possibly in violation of international and local laws. The allegation, which the government has neither denied nor admitted, was the latest sign of a further hardening under Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

"It's just a political choice," said Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, an umbrella group of nonprofits that work with asylum seekers. "It's all about presenting to a small element of the Australian population that they are tough. What's discussed is actually just being tough on persecuted people." 

©2015 The New York Times

Austin Ramzy is a New York Times reporter based in Hong Kong. 

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