UNHCR welcomes Jakarta Declaration to address irregular movements in Asia-Pacific

News Stories, 21 August 2013

© UNHCR/V.Tan
Locals say this fishermen's creek near the Bay of Bengal is sometimes used by people smugglers who organize boats at night.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, August 21 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has hailed a pledge by 13 countries in the Asia-Pacific region to address the growing challenge of irregular movements that are costing hundreds of lives at sea every year.

UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration joined ministers and senior officials from Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand at the half-day meeting. The Jakarta Declaration was endorsed unanimously at the end of the Special Conference on the Irregular Movement of Persons organized by the Indonesia government on Tuesday.

"Complex cross-border population movements are not a new phenomenon in this region," said UNHCR's Director of International Protection, Volker Turk, in his opening statement. "The uneven availability of protection, assistance and long-term solutions, family and community dispersal, labour needs, lack of access to legal migration opportunities, well-established travel routes, as well as smuggling networks, are all part of the complex fabric of mobility in the Asia-Pacific."

He called for a "pact of solidarity" and regional road map for action points that were reflected in the three-page Jakarta Declaration.

"We recognized the need for common responses involving countries of origin, transit as well as destination in more focused and action-oriented efforts in addressing the issue of people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime," read the declaration, which stressed the importance of burden-sharing and collective action in four areas prevention, early detection, protection and prosecution.

Prevention involves a range of actions such as mitigating the underlying factors that make people more vulnerable to irregular migration, by fostering political and socio-economic conditions and promoting better livelihood sustainability. Opportunities for legal channels of migration should be encouraged. Capacity should be built to promote timely search and rescue operations to reduce loss of life at sea.

Early detection can be done by strengthening information sharing and developing an early alert system among relevant officials.

The protection element focuses on establishing mechanisms to identify, protect and assist victims of trafficking, while ensuring that they are not punished for smuggling or trafficking offences. Another priority is to enhance communication and coordination to support search and rescue at sea, disembarkation, reception, processing and outcomes. People who are found not to be in need of protection should be encouraged to return home voluntarily.

Prosecution involves urging countries to accede to and implement the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols on smuggling and trafficking, and for national legislation to criminalize the latter acts. Mutual legal assistance should be provided in investigations, prosecutions and judicial proceedings.

Turk welcomed the declaration for its holistic approach to the problem of irregular movements. It prioritizes the protection of victims, going beyond the usual focus on border management and law enforcement.

"Crafting effective responses requires a solid understanding of the broader migration context, including the reasons for movement. Information campaigns, restrictive border practices and punitive measures have proved not to be adequate to prevent or dissuade movements in these circumstances. They do not work on their own," said the UNHCR official. "Worse, in the absence of a refugee protection and migration framework, deterrence measures can raise the stakes and therefore render the market for smugglers and traffickers more risky, but also more profitable."

Noting that unresolved refugee situations often result in irregular movements further afield, he appealed to host countries to stabilize the population where they are by improving their conditions of stay while working out solutions.

"Temporary stay or other arrangements that provide legal access to the labour market are one potential avenue to achieve this objective," said Turk. "Putting in place similar reception and stay arrangements across countries will contribute to minimize onward movements while also ensuring that beneficiaries are able to contribute in full to their host communities during their stay."

He cited this as an example of "in-country opportunities" in refugee-receiving countries, while stressing the need for refugee-producing countries to address the root causes of displacement. He also urged third countries to expand resettlement opportunities in a renewed push for solutions.

It was proposed that a Group of Eminent Persons from the region could be set up to move these ideas and initiatives forward.

By Vivian Tan in Jakarta