By Shilpa Rao
In the regions of North Africa and West Asia where conflict and failure of governance are rife, human smugglers have emerged to help locals flee their homes and seek refuge in Europe and other safe environments.
In Asia, the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have been facing discrimination and threats in their home country from Buddhist extremists. Similarly, constant clashes in Bangladesh have forced poor residents out of their homes, on to overcrowded tiny boats heading to Malaysia and Indonesia.
In April 2015, Italian coast guards rescued hundreds of migrants attempting to enter Europe from North Africa. The migrants were stuck at sea for at least a week before being rescued. Similarly, the Rohingyas and the Bangladeshi migrants had been stuck at sea for weeks with no food or water.
The question arises: who is responsible for the refugees, and why should they be taken in?
Who is responsible for refugees at sea?
According to the United Nations Conventions of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), any boat/vessel within 24 nautical miles of a country’s coast will come under that country’s jurisdiction. However, if the boat is over 24 nautical miles away, it is in the international waters and has to follow the laws of the country that the boat belongs to. Since the boat, in this case, is a stateless one, and carries passengers who intend to disembark and claim refuge, the host country can evoke laws of sovereignty and turn back the boat.
Nevertheless, countries that are signatories of the UNCLOS are required to rescue the people in distress and provide migrants with assistance even if found in international waters. The host country is required to promote search and rescue operations but are not required to accommodate the refugees.
Why should countries receive refugees?
On humanitarian grounds, countries are expected to receive refugees to prevent the deaths of several innocent people at sea or back in their home countries. However, countries like Australia have recently refused to take in refugees coming in via the sea. According to statistics, at least 140,000 Rohingya Muslims are in internally displaced persons camps in Myanmar,[i] and at least 33.3 million North Africans and West Asians are believed to have been internally displaced and at least 16.7 million are refugees.[ii] While countries like Australia, Indonesia and a few others in Europe believe that boats containing migrants can be discouraged by reducing rescue operations, migrants insist that the conditions back home make it impossible for them to survive.
Why would a country not take in refugees?
Refugees can strain host countries’ resources as the latter will be forced to shell out millions on food, medical services, sanitation, security, accommodation and maintenance. In Kilis, Turkey, where at least 15,000 Syrian refugees[iii] are residing, expenditures go up to USD 2 million per month.[iv] Similarly, Lebanon houses at least 1.2 million Syrian refugees of a total population of approximately 4.5 million.[v] Moreover, accepting refugees cannot guarantee them a better life. Syrian refugees in Turkey complain about the lack of formal education, unemployment and no proper shelter. Refugees have faced discrimination in their host countries, making it harder for them to continue with their daily life.
Refugees can strain host countries’ resources as the latter will be forced to shell out millions on food, medical services, sanitation, security, accommodation and maintenance.
How can the refugee problem be solved?
In the case of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants, pressure from the international community to improve conditions for the poor and implementation strict policy against discrimination of minority communities would help reduce migration.
In case of West Asia and North Africa, where conflict and instability are expected to continue for a few decades, the European Union should change policies to make itself refugee-friendly. As the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has noted, EU member states would have to bear the burden of what is being touted as the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Similarly in case of rescue missions, the EU could be doing much more. Currently, Operation Triton, conducted by EU’s border security agency Frontex, is active only up to thirty nautical miles off the Italian Coast. It replaced a hugely successful Operation Mare Nostrom, undertaken solely by Italy, and cost approximately one third of the previous budget.[vi] However, since Operation Triton began, the number of refugee deaths at sea has increased drastically. According to a New York Times article, the period from January 2015 – April, 20, 2015, had seen 1600% migrant-drowning deaths in the Mediterranean as compared to the same period in the previous year.
Nevertheless, a joint effort by the European Union to police the sea, an increase in the budget for rescue operations and conducting rescue operations beyond thirty nautical miles could help save more migrant lives.
Likewise, a joint operation by the SAARC and ASEAN countries can help reduce the number of migrants in South and Southeast Asia at sea and provide for better rehabilitation options. Rescue operations by countries like India, Indonesia, Australia and China could help reduce migrant deaths at sea and also help these countries monitor refugees entering the country more proactively, rather than having them enter through illegal channels and posing a greater security threat.
The author is a research analyst at the Strategic Foresight Group, specialising in international affairs, security and terrorism.
[iii] Last count Feb 2014.
[vi] While Mare Nostrum cost a whopping Euro 9.7 million/ month, Operation Triton cost Euro 3 million/ month. Mare Nostrum covered a larger area extending to the coast of Libya.