Should Asia take in refugees: can the Small State lead the way?

Namrata Yadav - Associate, Reducing Inequalities

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. File photo: John Owens/VOA via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, violence broke out in the Cox Bazaar camps for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Seven were killed while hundreds fled to save themselves from meeting the same fate. The violence broke out as a consequential breakdown of ongoing strife between rival gangs in the camp i.e. the ‘Munna’ gang and a group of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) followers. Infamous for smuggling a methamphetamine drug called ‘yaba’ into Bangladesh, the rival gangs have made things more difficult than usual for camp residents. As humanitarian agencies withdraw at night and security forces retreat, these gangs turn the refugee settlement into personal fight rings to exercise fear and control over the residents. At the same time, incidents of sexual abuse of Rohingya women who were taken to a Bangladeshi island in the Bay of Bengal in April this year were recently reported by Amnesty International. Similar instances of exploitation and grief of the Rohingyas have been making news ever since they were made to flee their motherland. Yet the only solution has been limited to increasing pressure on Bangladeshi authorities. A developing country such as Bangladesh, with its overburdened economy exacerbated by Covid-19 faces difficulties in providing more. Other solutions need to be looked into. In my opinion, developed countries in Asia should start resettling refugees and in doing so, Singapore must lead the way. The small state is capable of changing the course for refugees in Asia and I shall elucidate upon the same below.

Singapore holds true potential to meet the challenges of the refugee crisis in Asia head-on for two reasons. One, with its open economy and able infrastructural policies, Singapore is competent of both - accommodating, and offering low skilled jobs to these refugees. Second, given Singapore’s multi-ethnic environment, successful development policies and respected government authority, it is capable of providing a steady environment to incoming ethnicities. Yet, Singapore’s humanitarian aid to this dismal issue has been inadequate monetary contributions of 60,000 USD to the UNHCR annually. Now is the time that Singapore offered a sustainable solution to this crisis by providing resettlement to these persecution-fearing, affronted individuals who have been forced to flee their homelands.

The number of refugees in Asia- Pacific has been on the rise. The number of refugees rose to 20.4 million in 2019. Majority of them are from Afghanistan and Myanmar. For long, the West has offered the solution of resettlement to the displaced in the eastern hemisphere. However, this narrative is now gradually changing with countries in the West applying stringent anti- immigration policies. Rich countries only took 16% of the refugees in 2018. This calls for action by the able countries in the East to devise equitable systems for this problem.

The proposed alternative can be explored with a regulated and methodical mechanism. Learning from its European counterparts such as Switzerland that lets in 800 recognised refugees every year in a country of 8 million under the UNHCR Resettlement Scheme, Singapore can begin with a small number of 500. Letting in a limited number of refugees with an airtight policy of housing and jobs in low skilled areas, given Singapore’s export oriented economy can work favorably. At the same time, an articulate policy to regulate these numbers and prioritize must also be looked into by the government to avoid politicization and remain sensitive to the incoming refugees. With Singapore’s working age population on the decline in 2020 as predicted by Institute of Policy Studies, letting in refugees can offer some solutions. Singapore offering low skilled jobs to refugees will establish a model example for small states with developed economies.

Finite landmass, population density and restricted land availability are the reasons cited by the Singapore government in their aversion to let refugees in. However, Singapore’s declaration about increasing its population by 1.5 million by 2030, its declining working age population and increased land reclamation, indicate that now is the time to reshape Asian policy in this matter. While developing economies such as Malaysia and Philippines host refugees, developed nations of Japan, South Korea and Singapore have strict anti- refugee policies. Asia is going to witness the biggest increase in the number of refugees as climate change forces more people to leave their homes. While there are tech enterprises employing and training refugees in the West, Asia is facing an impending crisis. It is time Singapore leads the way to change this policy, alarming the Association of South-East Asian Nations, (ASEAN) about this overlooked issue. The reluctance on behalf of these Asian nations is rooted in their histories and cultures. However, the strategic merit of a policy is that the state gets to regulate it. Singapore is known for its strict policies and effective implementation. Letting in refugees via an articulate policy and regulating the same will set an example for Asian nations with larger numbers of refugees. Not only can Singapore use such a policy to alleviate its domestic problems to an extent, but also produce a model resettlement scheme for the continent. It is essential to identify Singapore’s land constraint here. Allowing refugee resettlement with its limited resources will be a strong political move for Singapore in yet again establishing that the small state knows no bounds.

As Covid-19 brought to surface the plight of refugees all over the world, it also is a chance to build back better. Policy frameworks that resurrect human rights for these refugees or the day they can return to Myanmar are a long way to go. Meanwhile developed Asian nations can set the path for a new horizon with changing the way of life for refugees and redefine Asia’s identity.


Namrata Yadav is a Masters in International Affairs Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. She is committed to issues of human rights, inclusive development in Asia and policy making in international law. She is a researcher, conversationalist and lawyer with keen interest in the areas of international law, international humanitarian law and social development. Having learnt the craft of communication and writing with precision on matters of public importance with law firms and media houses, now in pursuit of advocacy for human rights in policy matters and global affairs.

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