• When hundreds of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants travelling to Southeast Asia in 2015 died after being abandoned at sea by smugglers, the ‘Bali Process’ forum promised action
  • Yet, years later, little has been done and the roots of the problem remain. Given the inaction of the forum’s co-chairs Australia and Indonesia, perhaps it is time to bypass the Bali Process entirely

Six years on from the Andaman Sea crisis that claimed the lives of hundreds of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants seeking passage to Southeast Asia, the region seems no nearer to successfully mitigating the risks to the victims of human trafficking and smuggling.

Indeed, the prospects of those who continue to be smuggled and trafficked across the sea remain as bleak as ever. But perhaps that should be no surprise; after all, the causes of the problem remain largely unaddressed.

Let’s cast our minds back to the first half of 2015, when some 32,000 people are thought to have attempted the perilous crossing. Up to eight thousand were reportedly abandoned at sea by smugglers, then subjected to a game of ‘human ping-pong’ as the countries they were trying to reach – Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – each refused to take them. As a result, hundreds died, some while fighting over diminishing rations on boats that had been refused permission to land.

While those three countries took much of the subsequent blame, part of the region’s reaction to the crisis was to focus attention on the regional forum set up to prevent such tragedies – the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime of 2002, or more simply ‘the Bali Process’.

Critics charged that during the crisis the forum’s silence had been deafening, its inaction incomprehensible. Stung by those criticisms, the forum created a Task Force on Planning and Preparedness that was meant to provide for a more effective response by coordinating national level plans and providing an early warning system. Its members also endorsed the 2016 Bali Declaration (reaffirmed in 2018), vowing to provide safety and protection to vulnerable groups.

In the intervening years that Task Force has met six times, yet the roots of the problem it is supposed to address remain as strong as ever. The pogroms and expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State continue, as do the operations of trafficking and smuggling networks. Little has been done to go after officials complicit in these syndicates.

The onset of Covid-19 and the beginnings of forced relocations of refugees to the silt island of Bhasan Char in Bangladesh have compounded the factors driving desperate people to make the dangerous trip across the Andaman Sea.

With all that going on, the Bali Process and its Task Force are now back in the spotlight. Unfortunately, it seems, for all the wrong reasons. Despite the above-mentioned state of affairs, the response of the forum and its effectiveness are still woefully wanting.

The Bali Process’s original goal of establishing operational level coordination among members to prepare for large scale displacements is clearly unmet.

Boats plying a human trade continue to cross the Andaman Sea, with those aboard sometimes left to die on the open sea. Australia and Indonesia, who co-chair the forum, seem comfortable with this status quo.

Both the Bali Process and its Task Force are largely dependent on the national bodies and agencies of member states. International organisations may be members, but it is individual countries that actually drive the agenda.

The Bali Process’s original goal of coordination among members is clearly unmet. Boats plying a human trade continue to cross the Andaman Sea, with those aboard sometimes left to die on the open sea. Australia and Indonesia, who co-chair the forum, seem comfortable with this status quo. Pic courtesy of UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The lack of any tangible developments, especially in terms of operationalising responses to save lives, has led to the perception that the forum has little real interest beyond providing generic updates on its members’ actions and sharing of national practice.

The Task Force can do and should do more on prevention, operational response and coordination. Proposals by some members and other stakeholders for the establishment of a technical experts’ group to support the co-chairs in this endeavour would be a step in the right direction.

However, the Bali Process has done itself no favours by not only failing to give the idea due consideration, but by actively trying to block it from ever happening.

If the Bali Process and its co-chairs insist on remaining recalcitrant, other stakeholders, especially the most affected countries, ought to pursue more coordinated responses. To be truly effective, these responses should bypass the Bali Process entirely.

While there is little appetite to negotiate temporary refuge and offer protection now, the focus should be on how to coordinate responses and deploy resources on rescue at sea and on disembarkation procedures – the two most critical issues now.

It is simply inexcusable to allow displaced people on boats to starve or drown at sea, which seems to be the current accepted norm for those not lucky enough to evade naval patrols and somehow make landfall.

Excluding Bali Process members who have neither the interest nor desire to address a long-standing regional challenge would be done with the ultimate aim of saving lives. Hopefully, these disinterested members wouldn’t stand in the way of those who take their responsibilities seriously.

If members, especially its co-chairs, continue to neither stand up, nor stand aside, the question we must then ask is whether the Bali Process, which turns 20 next year, is as relevant to the region as it aspires to be.

Its reputation as an effective multilateral organisation would certainly diminish but that is a small price to pay for the work of saving lives.

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