Delegates from the region and beyond have highlighted the need for greater practical cooperation to address rising levels of irregular maritime movements in the Asia-Pacific region.
This conclusion was reached at the end of a three-day “Regional Roundtable on Irregular Movements by Sea in the Asia-Pacific region,” which was organized from Monday to Wednesday in Jakarta by the Indonesian government and the UN refugee agency.
“This roundtable is not only important but also very timely,” said Hasan Kleib, a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official. “The grim setting that we are facing in dealing with irregular migration by sea shows no end in sight. On the contrary, we are seeing an influx of irregular migrants arriving in this region.”
While the phenomenon of people taking to the seas in search of safety, refugee protection or better economic opportunities is not new, such mixed movements have grown significantly in recent years.
In 2012, more than 17,200 people arrived irregularly by boat in Australia. From June 2012 to February this year, more than 21,000 people are estimated to have sailed from the Bay of Bengal to countries in South-east Asia on smugglers’ boats. Hundreds have perished at sea.
“Too often, we hear reports that yet another overcrowded and rickety boat has sunk. Too many lives are lost on the high seas when they run out of food, water and fuel before reaching land,” said James Lynch, UNHCR’s regional representative.
The more than 70 participants at the Jakarta meeting agreed that irregular maritime movements were not just a national or regional problem, but a global challenge that affected all regions. They shared experiences with experts from the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Aden regions, and heard the perspectives of countries of origin, transit and destination.
“Regional cooperation is the key to ending this very lucrative business of human trafficking that brings so much misery,” said Christopher Horwood, who presented on the situation in the Gulf of Aden as the coordinator of the Kenya-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat. “Cooperation won’t stop the supply and demand for irregular migration, but it can reduce the human misery associated with such movements.”
A common issue that emerged was the challenge of accommodating both national security concerns and the humanitarian and protection needs of smuggled and trafficked people, including asylum-seekers and refugees.
“Dealing with maritime issues is a delicate business,” said Indonesian diplomat Kleib, noting the need for sensitivity. “I am expecting this roundtable to be a ground for enhancing the confidence-building measures among parties.”
UNHCR’s Lynch added, “The scope for practical regional cooperation is endless – from strengthening data gathering and analysis, to developing information campaigns warning people of the risks of getting on smugglers’ boats. We would also benefit greatly from mechanisms to improve coordination during rescue at sea, disembarkation, reception, profiling, referral and the search for solutions for different groups of people with different needs.”
Delegates at the meeting included members and observers of the Bali Process Ad Hoc Group, including Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Indonesia, the Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United States and Viet Nam. International organizations such as UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime were also present.
The conclusions of the meeting will be shared with Bali Process member states for their advice on how to move forward on this important issue.