Migration and International Law

As the Rohingya refugee crisis in Southeast Asia intensifies, regional actors are moving slowly to address the issue. Thousands of migrants remain stranded at sea as other governments (primarily Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia) refuse to permit them entry into their countries. An additional 100,000 Rohingya live in camps in Myanmar as internally displaced persons. And despite pleas from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, regional governments are refusing to accept the refugees, leading some to declare that a humanitarian disaster is at hand.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority who practice Islam and historically lived in northern Myanmar. The population historically presented a threat to the professed identity of the government of Myanmar, which justifies its military rule through a mixture of Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism. The government stripped the Rohingya of citizenship in the early 1980s and are barred by law from having more than two children. Despite these restrictive measures, the government of Myanmar officially does not recognize the Rohingya as a population, and this week stated it would not attend a regional conference to address the ongoing crisis if the word “Rohingya” is mentioned at the conference.

What do you think? What should be done to address the refugee crisis? What obligation, if any, do regional actors have to accept Rohingya migrants? What obligations, if any, do non-regional actors like the United States or the European Union, have? Is Ban Ki-moon correct that international law establishes “the obligation of rescue at sea” and therefore implies governments in the region should accept Rohingya refugees? Why?

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