Antonio Guterres, ASEAN, Europe, Far Right, Greece, Human Rights, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mediterranean, Mediterranean Sea, migrants, migration, Myanmar, refugees, Rohingya refugees, Thailand, UN, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
They may disagree on many issues, but as they struggled to respond to their respective refugee crises, the European and Asian governments acted with an equally distressing disregard for human life.
The Europeans showed little concern for the human rights and much — touted “European values” of tolerance etc that they often preach on the international stage and in their dealings with other states. The Asians illustrated an equal ruthlessness and lack of humanity.
The Europeans turned a deaf ear to the Vatican’s appeal for mercy and charity. The Asian nations had little pity for the plight of fellow Muslims.
In Europe, as the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea worsened, with thousands of desperate African, Arab and Asian refugees continuing to arrive on Italian and Greek shores, the 28 European Union countries squabbled over the number of people they could “realistically” be expected to allow on to their territory.
Plans were drawn up for a naval operation against the human traffickers. There was toxic talk of keeping out as many as possible of the world’s huddled masses.
In Asia, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) showed itself to be even more inhumane as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia left thousands of Rohingya refugees adrift on the high seas, adamant that they could not be expected to open their doors to Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority.
The Rohingyas were eventually given temporary shelter by Malaysia and Indonesia, but only after repeated scoldings by the United Nations to protect migrants and refugees stranded on the vessels, to give priority to saving lives, protecting rights, and respecting human dignity.
Amazingly, Mynamar where persecution against the Rohingyas is rife escaped Asean censure. Thailand which has received many of the migrants said it was not going to be taking in any more. None of the other Asean states said a word of protest.
A meeting to discuss the problem has been called at the end of the month — but many believe that Myanmar is unlikely to attend.
Significantly, UN officials, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein have also appealed strongly to European leaders to put human life, rights and dignity first when agreeing on a common response to what they called the “tragedy of epic proportions” unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea, where some 1,600 people have died this year trying to flee their strife-torn homelands.
Certainly, it isn’t easy for any country to open its doors to thousands of foreigners in one go and to provide them with food, water and shelter — and a future.
But in a world of war, violence, extremism, persecution and poverty, the mass movement of desperate people is inevitable. Pakistan opened its doors to millions of Afghans. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are taking in displaced Syrians.
The situation of so-called “stateless” people is even worse. Palestinian refugees have been in camps for decades as have so-called “Biharis”. The Rohingyas, chased out by the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, are unwelcome across Southeast Asia. Lampedusa in Italy is crowded with men, women and children of many different nationalities — but as they flee war and poverty, often leaving their documents behind, they might as well be stateless.
The number of migrants entering the EU illegally almost tripled last year. Of the nearly 170,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to Italy in 2014, more than 3,200 lost their lives trying to reach Europe. During the first two months of this year, arrivals were up 43 per cent versus the same period last year.
The outlook for Asean is equally grim. Nearly 31,000 refugees took to the boats in the last three months of 2014, followed by another 25,750 in the first quarter of 2014. Europe’s initial response to the mass arrival of the refugees was feeble, disjointed and inadequate. But the reality of the human tragedy unfolding in what many now call the “sea of death” finally forced governments into action — of sorts.
It’s still not clear if the distribution of the hapless people among EU member states will take place as the European Commission would like. Britain and France have already said no. With Europe’s Far Right xenophobic leaders breathing down their necks, others are not too keen either.
Asean’s callousness is not unexpected. Countries in the region don’t really have a tradition of caring much about human rights and have a policy of not interfering in the affairs of others.
Still, the lack of humanity initially shown by the region towards the desperate Rohingyas is cause for dismay. Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
In addition to taking in the refugees, Asean must demand that Myanmar stop the continuing violence against Rohingyas. The credibility and reputation of the region is at stake. Asean may want to focus on high economic growth and its plans to build a frontier-free common market. But it would be a pity if it lost its soul in the process.