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Rohingya Resettlement: Where is ASEAN?

09 Jan 2024
By Sadia Aktar Korobi
Rohingya refugees arrive in Aceh, Indonesia, June 2020.  Source: Prachatai /

ASEAN seeks to be the central political body in all Southeast Asian affairs. When it comes to the Rohingya refugee crisis, however, its silence on the resettlement of refugees and its inability to address the Myanmar issue highlights that it is still playing the role of a periphery player. 

In November 2023, nearly one year after its initial declaration, the United States-led resettlement program for vulnerable Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh was finally commenced. The program which is in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has resettled around 500 Rohingyas in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other countries.

Third-country resettlement programs are for the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent residence. But third-country resettlement for refugees is viewed by the UNHCR as the least desirable and most costly solution. Yet, recently, Dhaka has been interested in resetting the refugees in third countries.

The reason for this is the worsening internal situation of Myanmar, which has impeded the ongoing repatriation program for Rohingyas, and contributed to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the camps. To date, the efforts by the international community to aid this vulnerable community have been poor, to say the least. Since the pandemic hit in 2020, international funding for basic necessities has dropped as donor fatigue set in. In 2023, the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis Joint Response Plan barely managed to gather 40 percent of the funds required. Today, the Rohingya resettlement plan suffers from this same lack of enthusiasm.

Due to growing islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, and right-wing politics in the traditional refugee resettlement states such as Canada and the US, Rohingyas have found it harder to resettle there in large numbers. This raises important questions about why ASEAN members, which are closer and more culturally associated, are non-existent in the repatriation or resettlement initiatives of the Rohingya refugees. This includes major ASEAN nations Indonesia and Malaysia, which are Muslim majority countries.

ASEAN’s non-interference stance has certainly limited its ability to impact Myanmar’s critical post-coup situation. The military’s 2021 coup triggered non-violent citizen protests in the country that eventually turned into armed resistance against the repressive rule of the junta. ASEAN presented a 5-point consensus plan to end this violence, appointed a special envoy to consolidate dialogue with all parties in the conflict, and sought to streamline Rohingya repatriation.

ASEAN has not prevailed in any of these commitments.

The members are divided in their response to the military regime in light of the relationships they share with the country. But it’s not always understandable why they can’t be more effective in resettling the Rohingya refugees.

For Laos, Singapore, and Brunei, the explanation is more simple. Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations, and Singapore and Brunei, two of the smallest nations, have little space to resettle refugees. Vietnam is also unlikely to take in Rohingyas. The country parallels with the challenges faced by Bangladesh, and has an economy very similar to its own.

For Indonesia, Rohingya refugees have arrived in waves since the beginning, with more than 1500 currently estimated to be residing in various localities. In response, Indonesia recently asked UNHCR to persuade third countries to resettle more of the Rohingyas and in other countries. Such reaction from the world’s largest Muslim majority country is very disappointing, especially considering that is 13 times the size of Bangladesh, which has been hosting many thousands of Rohingyas for last 6 years. If Bangladesh can do it, Indonesia should be much more able and, one would think, willing. Indonesia’s ancient tradition of “peumulia jamee,” honouring guests, should be extended to the vulnerable Rohingya refugees.

Indonesia can also look at its neighbour Malaysia, currently hosting some 185,000 refugees, among whom 107,520 are Rohingyas. The country, even though it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee convention or its protocol, has been vocal about Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingyas and has called for ASEAN to investigate alleged atrocities committed against them. But Malaysia might not be the one to resettle them as it might encourage more Rohingyas to flee from Cox’s bazar camps in boats to reach the country.

Cambodia, by contrast, assured Bangladesh in 2022 that it wanted to help in bringing a sustainable solution to the Rohingya problem as ASEAN chair. This did not take place, but it still can help the country by resettling Rohingya refugees. The country is among the rare signatories of the 1951 refugee convention among the ASEAN nations, though it currently only hosts 24 refugees. Cambodia’s ties with Myanmar’s junta raises concerns about its capability and even willingness to act as a guarantor of human rights.

The Philippines, the only other signatory of  the1951 refugee convention after Cambodia, currently hosts an estimated 1,400 refugees and asylum-seekers. Manila boasts a vibrant history of hosting refugees, including white Russians in 1920s, Jews in 1945, and Vietnamese “boat-people” and Indo-Chinese diaspora groups throughout the 1980’s and 90’s. In 2019, the Philippines government offered citizenship to Rohingya refugees, demonstrating a willingness to accept them into the country.

Finally, Thailand is probably the least likely country to resettle the Rohingyas among the ASEAN members considering its decade-long “push-back policy.” With that being said, the country currently shelters about 96,000 refugees from Myanmar, mainly of Karen and Karenni ethnicity, still one of the world’s most protracted refugee crises.

Bangladesh has made it clear that it can no longer host the Rohingyas in its camps no matter how many funds are funnelled into it. In this situation, the true sustainable solution for Rohingyas is to either return to their country or to be resettled in countries which can host them appropriately. If ASEAN cannot put an end to the junta’s terror in Myanmar and help repatriate the Rohingyas, the least it can do is respond to their plight by resettling them with a dignified life. It’s high time ASEAN took its role as a regional leader seriously and launch a coordinated effort for the ailing Rohingya refugees.

Sadia Aktar Korobi completed her Masters degree at the department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her expertise lies in peace studies, international relations and gender studies. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.