Refugee crises demand a global solution

Immigrants come in many different forms, seeking safety or simply a better life, and the international community's response ought to reflect that.

A Bangladeshi refugee is attended to after surviving a boat journey to Kuala Langsa Port in  Indonesia. (Binsar Bakkara / AP)
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Why would anybody risk death on a crowded, open boat at sea heading towards an unwelcoming destination? There is no single answer to the question. For the Africans bound for southern Europe, it can be a matter of seeking a better life with greater opportunities. For the Rohingya ethnic group of Myanmar, it is to escape oppression, deprivation and possible death in a hostile homeland that refuses them citizenship. Two different refugee scenarios, separated by thousands of kilometres, but similar in one respect: nobody has a clear, workable solution to the dilemma these displaced people present.

The responses from the target countries have been different. In Europe, the most recent strategy has been to try to destroy the boats used in people trafficking with the hope of discouraging others from following. While many have died making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, thousands of others have been rescued by the Italian coastguard and other European agencies. In South East Asia, the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been offering food and water to the refugees, including Rohingya and poorer Bangladeshis, but will not allow their boats to land. Simply pushing boats back out to sea is clearly not a sustainable solution – especially since there are now believed to be between 6,000 and 8,000 people stuck on boats in the Andaman Sea and beyond.

While we are and must be sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, we must also ask whether the economically stretched nations of southern Europe or relatively small countries such as Malaysia are being asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the burden. Myanmar has indicated it will not even attend a meeting in Bangkok on May 29 aimed at solving a crisis that is largely of its making.

This regional meeting, supported by the United Nations, may come up with some temporary remedy, but as long as there are wars, famines and people escaping economic hardship, there will be refugees in greater and greater numbers. The problem is unprecedented. While there were millions of refugees after the Second World War, for the most part they were displaced people wanting to return to their homelands. Now it is increasingly the case of people who can’t or won’t go home. It is a global problem that requires agreed international protocols and procedures, not a piecemeal approach.