As we mark another anniversary of International Migrants Day, I’m reminded of the story of a Burmese family who, having worked in Thailand as migrant workers for over a decade, returned to Myanmar and set up a shop in Lay Kay Kaw, the peace town in Kayin State. They achieved the dream of so many migrant workers; using their hard-earned savings to start their own small business. It was all going well until the military coup. Lay Kay Kaw became one of the many targets of the Myanmar military. The peace town was turned into a war zone; their house was destroyed by the military and they, together with the other villagers, had to flee for safety to Thailand. Overnight these successful returnee migrant workers became refugees; leaving behind everything they had worked for.

There is very little in place in Thailand to respond to the forced displacement of people from Myanmar, possibly a couple of weeks   in make-shift shelters before having to return or “disappear” into the migrant population. Resettlement to third countries has all but come to a standstill. The other countries in the ASEAN bloc also have little to offer; even leaving desperate Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in damaged boats with no food or water.

In just two years, the military has returned Myanmar to a failed state, with over one million newly internally displaced people and thousands moving across the borders to neighbouring countries in search of safety, security, and stability.

People from Myanmar are not alone in this desperate experience.  In UNHCR’s ranking of refugees, asylum-seekers and other people in need of international protection, Myanmar ranks 6th after Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine, Afghanistan and South Sudan. However, faced with mass displacements from Venezuela and Ukraine, neighbouring countries and regional bodies have taken pragmatic and humanitarian measures.  Measures which, with political will and compassion, could be replicated by ASEAN.

Colombia, for example, offered ten-year Temporary Protection Status (TPS) to nearly two million refugees and migrants from Venezuela who had been displaced by the violence, political and economic crisis which caused widespread shortages of medicine, food and fuel. Instead of a lengthy screening process, which would have taken years to process considering the number of people, the TPS process was simple and covered everyone crossing the border, whether at official checkpoints or through natural border crossings.  Everyone with Temporary Protection Status is eligible for all essential services and for work. Other countries in South America then followed suit and adopted their own fast track protection systems.

In Europe, the Council of the European Union took the unprecedented step of activating the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD in response to the forced displacement of people from Ukraine. With this protection and national programs, an estimated 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees have been granted the right to work, access accommodation, healthcare and education for two years, with the possibility of a further one-year extension if the situation does not return to normalcy. The Netherlands also extended protection to Ukrainians who were already working in the country before the war and who could not return home safely.

It would be naïve to think that offering immediate protection to such large numbers of refugees and migrants was not without its challenges. Particularly in the case of South America, where most of the migrants from Venezuela arrived with only a few belongings and needed assistance to set themselves up. And because they were moving from a country with a collapsed health system, many were in need of urgent medical care.  Furthermore, in Colombia, almost 500,000 Venezuelan children had to be enrolled in local public schools. The logistics of quickly organising increased services to accommodate the new arrivals was clearly not an easy task.

Nevertheless, however challenging organising the logistics to increase services might be, it is no more challenging than organizing refugee camps; or trying to push people back into war zones. But it is certainly much more humane, dignified and neighbourly. The benefits can quickly outweigh the immediate challenges. Local and national economies are strengthened as new arrivals enter the workforce with a wide range of skills to offer; dependency on corruption reduces significantly, and communities are better integrated with greater social cohesion.

In South America, one of the strengths of the response was the coordinated regional effort; which also opened the door to donors supporting the receiving countries financially and technically.

In the ASEAN region, Thailand and Malaysia have worked hard over the last two decades to provide temporary documentation to migrant workers who had entered irregularly during the previous military dictatorship in Myanmar. All those efforts will be wasted if ASEAN does not step up as a bloc and follow the example of South America and the European Union and provide temporary protection status with all the trimmings through a simple and quick process for those fleeing the current junta.

The temporary protection status assumes that the situation in the country of origin will return to normalcy and people will be able to return, thus delaying the need to find permanent solutions. A policy to immediately document incoming refugees and migrants could therefore also act as a stimulus for ASEAN and the international community to take a more pro-active stance in pressuring the Myanmar generals to step down and out and return the country to the people.

Commenting on the Colombian Temporary Protection Status, Gomez Lucas, Adviser to the Colombian president on border matters said: “By granting Venezuelan migrants temporary protected status for 10 years, we gave them room to breathe and a license to dream”.  Will ASEAN give a license to dream or let the nightmare continue?


Jackie Pollock, Adviser, Mekong Migration Network (MMN)