Southeast Asia: Refugee crisis and freedom of expression must be tackled at ASEAN Summit

18 November 2015, 10:49 UTC | Malaysia, New Zealand, Viet Nam, Thailand, Indonesia
© Thapanee Ietsrichai

Southeast Asian leaders, including New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, meeting this week in Malaysia must urgently prioritise a coordinated plan to help the thousands of asylum seekers and migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are forced to risk abuse and death at sea, said Amnesty International.  

Governments meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Kuala Lumpur from 18-22 November cannot solely focus on economic development while there is a looming refugee crisis and an ongoing clampdown on freedom of expression in the region.

"ASEAN nations have an important chance at this week’s Summit to agree on urgent action to prevent this tragedy from happening again.”

Grant Bayldon, Executive Director of Amnesty International in New Zealand.

“The global refugee crisis erupted in Southeast Asia in May this year, when thousands of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded in rickety boats, pushed back from safety on shore, trafficked into forced labour, or killed at sea. ASEAN nations have an important chance at this week’s Summit to agree on urgent action to prevent this tragedy from happening again,” said Grant Bayldon, Executive Director of Amnesty International in New Zealand.

“Governments in the region – in particular Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – must put in place strong domestic asylum systems, in line with their obligations. Customary international law is clear – people have the right to seek asylum, to have their requests fairly considered and not to be returned to a risk of torture or persecution.

“Those ASEAN member states who have yet not done so should also begin the process of ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

“With Prime Minister John Key attending the Summit later this week, this is a crucial moment for New Zealand, as a member of the Bali Process Steering Group and a key country in the region to step up efforts and show leadership to help this vulnerable group of people.

"John Key must ensure his engagement at ASEAN is not a missed opportunity.”

Grant Bayldon

“John Key must ensure his engagement at ASEAN is not a missed opportunity.”

As part of the solution to provide real alternatives to those fleeing persecution in the region, Amnesty International is calling on New Zealand to double the country’s refugee quota and increase resettlement places for unaccompanied minors. New Zealand should also urge countries to use alternatives to detention and provide greater assistance with search and rescue operations. They should also increase funding to UNHCR for processing people seeking asylum in regional countries.

Freedom of expression

All governments in the region, but especially Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Viet Nam and Indonesia, must respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and repeal or amend laws that violate this right.

In Malaysia, the colonial-era Sedition Act has been used to investigate, charge or imprison hundreds of individuals who have criticized the government or the monarchy.

In Thailand, official repression of free speech has dramatically intensified. Prisoners of conscience have been arbitrarily imprisoned, routinely denied bail and tried in often unfair trials in military courts, some without the right to appeal.

While historic elections recently took place in Myanmar, there has been an increase in the numbers arrested and imprisoned solely for peaceful dissent during the past year. Weeks before the elections, at least 19 new prisoners of conscience were locked up adding to the scores of people already detained solely for peacefully exercise their rights.

The suppression of peaceful, social and religious activism continues in Viet Nam. Members of activist groups face regular harassment, including surveillance, restrictions on their movement, arbitrary detention, prosecution and imprisonment and physical attacks.

In Indonesia, security forces arbitrarily arrested at least 264 Papuan political activists in May for peaceful protests during President Joko Widodo’s visit to the province. Scores of peaceful pro-independence activists from the Papua and Maluku regions remain imprisoned, some simply for waving a pro-independence flag. Blasphemy laws also continue to be used to repress minority beliefs.

“We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience across the region,” said Grant Bayldon.  

“ASEAN leaders must not leave the Kuala Lumpur Summit before there is a commitment to end the ongoing assault on human rights defenders in their countries. These defenders must be allowed to carry out their work without fear of persecution.”