(New York) - Southeast Asian leaders at the 14th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting should address the dire human rights situation in Burma, improve treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and strengthen protection for migrants, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today to the ASEAN secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan. Human Rights Watch urged that these issues be a priority for the new ASEAN human rights body, which is to be discussed at the meeting taking place from February 27 to March 1 in Hua Hin, Thailand.
Human Rights Watch said that the recent forced return at sea of boats containing ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma, leading to hundreds of deaths, was proof of the need for regional solutions to Southeast Asia's human rights problems. The global economic downturn and the resulting impact on migrants' rights also highlights how gaps in current labor and policy frameworks across the region also have left millions of workers at high risk of mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said.
"The tragedy surrounding the Rohingyas' perilous exodus reveals glaring failures of ASEAN in dealing with Burma," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "ASEAN's continuing failure to hold the Burmese military government accountable for abuses and ASEAN's unwillingness to provide refuge for those fleeing oppression in Burma are two sides of the same coin."
Burma's military government continues to deny its citizens basic freedoms, including freedom of expression, association, and assembly. It regularly imprisons political activists and human rights defenders - the number of political prisoners nearly doubled following the September 2007 crackdown, to more than 2,150. The Burmese military continues to violate the rights of civilians in ethnic conflict areas by committing extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and land confiscation without due process, both as part of military offensives and in preparation for mega-infrastructure projects of foreign companies.
Human Rights Watch said that ASEAN's human rights body should independently investigate and report on human rights conditions in member countries, and that Burma should be a priority.
The summit meeting is likely to discuss what measures may be taken, in cooperation with the United Nations refugee agency, to protect the Rohingya in countries where they land after fleeing Burma. But a significant step to ensure binding commitment of the entire region would be for all ASEAN member states to ratify the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol without delay.
"The plight of the Rohingya, exacerbated by Thailand's actions in pushing them back out to sea, should be a wake-up call for ASEAN to change its approach in dealing with refugees and migrants," said Pearson. "ASEAN countries can no longer look the other way and close the door to those in need of protection."
Millions of men and women from Southeast Asia work as migrants in both Asia and the Middle East, typically in domestic work, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Trafficking within, and emanating from, Southeast Asia remains a serious problem, and harsh immigration enforcement measures have fueled additional abuses in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.
"Many migrants are deceived about their working conditions, cheated out of their wages, abused by their employers, and deported without access to redress," said Pearson. "The economic downturn places migrants at heightened risk - desperation and gaps in legal protections provide a recipe for exploitation."
In many cases, bilateral cooperation between ASEAN countries has failed to establish adequate protection for vulnerable migrant populations. Regional cooperation and leadership from ASEAN can help to ensure minimum standards across the region that will avoid an unhealthy race to the bottom, as countries compete for jobs in a volatile economic climate. Furthermore, ASEAN can play an important role in fighting human trafficking.
Both Malaysia and Thailand have failed to investigate allegations of collusion between government officials and trafficking gangs on the Malay-Thai border. In 2008, Burmese migrants told Human Rights Watch of being sold to criminal gangs, who charged those with money to smuggle them back into Malaysia and trafficked those who could not pay.
While ASEAN has recently declared its intention to address some of these issues through its Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, its Declaration on Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children, and the Bali Process, concrete improvements have yet to be seen. In the letter, Human Rights Watch urges ASEAN member states to end restrictions on migrant workers' freedom of movement and freedom of association, to ensure that migrants have access to justice and support services, and to institute screening procedures to identify and assist victims of trafficking and abused migrant workers, among other measures.
"Concrete measures to promote and protect the rights of refugees and migrants will make it possible for ASEAN to evolve from a talk shop and become an action-oriented organization, responding to what really matters to people in Southeast Asia," said Pearson.