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10/09/2017 China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis - The New York Times


China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee

HONG KONG — When a deadly earthquake rocked Nepal in April, China and
India rushed to send relief supplies and search-and-rescue teams. But when
another humanitarian crisis — boats bearing thousands of migrants — appeared
off Southeast Asian shores a month later, Asia’s two most populous countries said
and did little. Instead, offers to resettle the migrants came from Gambia and the
United States.

The wealthiest nations in the Asia-Pacific region stood back as well. Australia
declared it would not resettle the migrants, mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing
religious persecution in Myanmar or poor Bangladeshis seeking jobs. Japan
pledged $3.5 million in emergency assistance but also refrained from offering to
take in any displaced people.

More than a month after Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide

temporary shelter for up to 7,000 of the migrants stranded at sea, there has been
no sign of progress in finding them a permanent home, nor any hint that
Myanmar would address the conditions driving the Rohingya exodus. And Asia’s
most powerful nations are essentially sitting out the crisis.

Their passivity is all the more striking because, halfway around the world,
European leaders have been actively debating a response to their own migrant
crisis, in which more than 1,700 people from Africa and the Middle East have
died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India

often present their nations as emerging global powers, promoting regional 1/5
10/09/2017 China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis - The New York Times

cooperation. Both countries also share a border with Myanmar and enjoy
economic leverage as major trading partners, and in China’s case, as a top source
of foreign investment.

But neither has pressured the government on its treatment of the Rohingya or
played a significant role in efforts to resettle them. During a meeting of the
United Nations Security Council last month, China insisted that the matter was
an internal one for Myanmar to resolve.

“The Rohingya issue is a complex multilateral issue,” said Zachary Abuza, an

analyst with the consultancy firm Southeast Asia Analytics. The governments in
Southeast Asia “want it to go away, but they are unwilling to solve it. China and
India could play leadership roles but see it as a losing issue that would diminish
their clout and bilateral interests.

“No country has more leverage over Myanmar than China, even if it’s
diminished in the past four years,” he added. But China sees the Rohingya
problem “as such a toxic one in Southeast Asia that it is unwilling to make a deal
of the issue. There is no political upside.”

India has helped absorb past waves of refugees fleeing border wars and
political repression in Myanmar, providing sanctuary to Burmese pro-democracy
activists through decades of military rule, for example. It also hosts more than
10,000 Rohingya who fled earlier spates of violence against them.

But India has refrained from criticizing Myanmar and adopted a policy of
grudging tolerance toward Rohingya arrivals rather than engagement, analysts
and refugee advocates said. Some government officials have expressed fear that
Rohingya Muslims in India might be infiltrated by jihadists.

“India sort of stayed away from this whole thing, and that is disappointing,”
said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, referring
to the most recent crisis. “India wants to be more careful in maintaining its
strategic and economic influence” over neighbors rather than criticize them over
human rights issues, she said.

Michel Gabaudan, president of the advocacy group Refugees International,

based in Washington, said India was distrustful of the international refugee
process in part because it had received little recognition for taking in refugees, 2/5
10/09/2017 China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis - The New York Times

including more than 100,000 Tibetans from China and another 100,000 Tamils
from Sri Lanka. “India has taken refugees when it made political sense, but not
out of a sense of international obligation,” he said.

Many in India and elsewhere in the region consider the problem of refugees
to be a legacy of Western imperialism and colonial-era borders. The origins of the
current crisis, for example, can be traced to 1974, when the Burmese military
government asserted that the Rohingya were economic migrants who had
traveled to Myanmar during British rule and stripped them of citizenship.

As a result, Mr. Gabaudan said, there is a sense that responsibility for

refugees rests with the West and institutions such as the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees. Only a handful of nations in Asia are among the 148
countries that are parties to the main international conventions that protect

“Generally speaking, there is a lack of state responsibility for refugee

protection in Asia,” said Brian Barbour, director of external relations at the Japan
Association for Refugees. “Most countries in the region believe that they should
be praised for hosting such large numbers of refugees, not criticized for refusing
to grant asylum or allow refugees to locally integrate.”

During the last major refugee crisis in Asia, which began in the mid-1970s,
more than three million people fled war in Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia and
Laos — and arrived in destinations across Southeast Asia that grew increasingly
unwilling to accept them, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines,
Singapore and Thailand. At an international conference in 1979, governments in
the region agreed to admit the refugees temporarily only after the rest of the
world promised to assume most of the costs and to resettle them elsewhere.

More than one million people were resettled in the United States, with large
populations going to Australia and Canada as well. Much smaller populations
were resettled in Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines.

China resettled 260,000 ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam at the time. In the
preceding decades, it also took in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese fleeing
discrimination and violence in Indonesia and Malaysia, and earlier this year, it
offered temporary refuge for ethnic Chinese known as the Kokang who fled
fighting in their home state in northeastern Myanmar. 3/5
10/09/2017 China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis - The New York Times

But the Rohingya and other refugee populations that are not of Chinese
ethnicity are less of a concern to Beijing, said Yun Sun, a scholar at the Brookings
Institution in Washington who has studied China and refugee issues. She said
Beijing helped ethnic Chinese refugees out of a sense of “amity,” but only if such
assistance was not politically costly. “Beijing doesn’t want to be seen as
interfering with other countries’ internal affairs,” she said.

Unlike India, China ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. But it limits
registration of refugees and restricts access by the United Nations’ refugee agency
to populations in China. The government has also refused to protect North
Koreans who cross the border as refugees, treating them instead as economic
migrants subject to forced repatriation.

“The domestic priority is internal stability,” said Alistair D. B. Cook, a

research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at
Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Mr. Cook said an emphasis on noninterference in Asia has meant that the
only countries in the region that have responded to the migration crisis are those
that had migrants leave or come ashore. “Essentially what we see now, we see
going as far back as the Indochinese exodus,” he said. “How states responded
then and how they respond now, there hasn’t been too much change.”

What has changed, however, is the economic strength of the region, which
has enjoyed several decades of rapid growth since the Vietnam War. Many
countries in Asia are much richer than they were 40 years ago, suggesting at least
greater financial capacity to assist refugees.

While countries such as Thailand and the Philippines provide temporary

sanctuary for migrants fleeing persecution, Japan is the only nation in Asia that
has accepted refugees for resettlement through the United Nations’ refugee
agency. Since beginning the program in 2010, though, Japan has resettled only 18
refugee families, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Even Australia, long a destination for migrants seeking safety and a better
life, has taken a tougher stance against asylum seekers. After as many as 880
people drowned trying to reach the continent in 2012, the government adopted a
policy of intercepting migrants at sea and turning them back, or holding them 4/5
10/09/2017 China and India Are Sitting Out Refugee Crisis - The New York Times

indefinitely at offshore detention centers and, most recently, flying them to

countries willing to take them for a fee.

Earlier this month, an Indonesian smuggler said the Australian authorities

had given him and his crew more than $30,000 in cash to take their cargo of 65
migrants to Indonesia, possibly in violation of international and local laws. The
allegation, which the government has neither denied nor admitted, was the latest
sign of a further hardening under Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“It’s just a political choice,” said Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee
Council of Australia, an umbrella group of nonprofits that work with asylum
seekers. “It’s all about presenting to a small element of the Australian population
that they are tough. What’s discussed is actually just being tough on persecuted
people. ”

Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing, Colin Moreshead from Tokyo and
Nida Najar from New Delhi.

A version of this article appears in print on June 29, 2015, on Page A4 of the New York edition with
the headline: Asia Giants Are Quiet as a Crisis Worsens.

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