During the past few years, issues of immigration, refugees and displaced persons have transcended national jurisdictions. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, nearly 13.5 million people have been in desperate need of humanitarian aid. More than 440,000 refugees have entered Europe in 2017 alone, and almost 3,000 have already gone missing. In Southeast Asia, a similar crisis has caught the attention of world community. In the predominantly Buddhist country of Myanmar, the government’s policies against, and its unrelenting persecution of, the Muslim Rohingya people have forced thousands of members of this community to flee their homes in order to save their lives. Many geopolitical analysts and commentators have noted many worthwhile similarities between the Syrian crisis and the one now unfolding in the Southeast Asian state of Myanmar.
While the Syrian refugee crisis emanated from a civil war that was greatly accentuated by geopolitical manoeuvres and foreign intervention, the Rohingya refugee crisis has been predominantly a domestic issue. Popular support from the media and the geopolitical importance of the Middle East has motivated the international community to help Syrian refugees. In Myanmar, however, the same has not been true, highlighting the fallacies of the international legal framework as an unenforceable and incomplete system.
The Syrian civil war is not the first example of the return of superpower politics. The Middle East has been the primary target of mismanaged foreign policies launched and conducted in the name of a global “war on terror,” dating back, at the very least, to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. As ISIL continues to lose ground, both the United States and Russia are actively working to create a post-ISIL regime that is favourable to their interests: the United States’ attempt to depose Assad and Russia’s preservation of his regime. As the unifying theme of eliminating ISIL wanes, the possibility of direct confrontation between two major world powers has increased, evidenced by the tense situation of the fighter jet incident in June 2017.
The international community has provided a fair amount of legal protection and guidance regarding refugee issues since the 1951 Refugee Convention and the establishment of the UNHCR. In July 2017, for example, the Lille Administrative Tribunal compelled the French government to provide migrants in Calais with access to drinking water, showers and food. Likewise, the 2004 Qualification Directive played a key role during the Syrian refugee crisis by imposing “a positive duty on EU states to offer protection to those who seek refuge from violence or war. Neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan have been a large source of support, each hosting more than 750,000 and 525,000 refugees respectively. The UAE has provided polio vaccination for Syrian children and has given over DH 2.2 billion towards humanitarian aid efforts. There is no doubt that the refugee crisis is an ongoing, major problem, with few disputing the gravity of the situation facing the Syrian people.
At the same time, the international community has been dangerously silent on the flagrant cruelty suffered by the Rohingyas. While regional cooperation is key to solving such a crisis, ASEAN countries have different political interests at stake. As a bloc, ASEAN cannot legally intervene in issues of national sovereignty, although it could do much more to encourage transnational collaboration. China has voiced its support for the Myanmar government for “protecting its national security,” blocking concerted efforts to hold it responsible for its discrimination by employing China’s veto power at the UN Security Council. India has worsened the situation for the Rohingya population by announcing its efforts to deport 40,000 illegal Rohingya migrants. Similarly, Bangladesh, strained under the weight of 400,000 plus Rohingya refugees, has been pushing them back to Myanmar. Although this is illegal under the principle of non-refoulement (sending asylum-seekers back to a land that would persecute them) in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, none of the surrounding states is a signatory to either agreement. Moreover, the UN has yet to form a regional refugee protection framework, and, even so, it is unlikely that Southeast Asian countries would sign one as parties. Such legal constraints are but one main hindrance to international efforts against the Myanmar government.
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