In the 1960s and 1970s many thousands of people fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Countries like Thailand may not have welcomed the refugees with open arms, but they did let them stay. In the late 1980s Thailand also allowed tens of thousands of Burmese refugees to set up more or less permanent camps along the border.
That relatively humane policy seems to have vanished. The deportation last month of 4000 Hmong refugees from Thailand back to Laos is part of a broader story. Cambodia recently sent a group of Uighurs back to China, where they are almost sure to face trial, torture and long prison terms. In late 2008, Thailand’s navy reportedly intercepted a group of Burmese Muslim refugees, turning their boat back to sea even though it meant many of them would probably die. With its offshore detention centre for asylum-seekers on Christmas Island seriously overcrowded, Australia has asked other countries to intercept boatloads of potential refugees heading its way. Indonesia has gone along with the request, stopping Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka on their way south.
The financial crisis is certainly one reason that Asians – like Americans and Europeans – have become less open to refugees. Another problem is that many Asian states never signed the UN’s refugee accords. The region’s major powers don’t help. Japan is one of the most insular countries in the world, hardly welcoming to migrants. Since China won’t let the UN classify North Korean migrants in China as refugees, other nations in the region feel freer to snub their noses at the UN agencies.
If North Korea ever emerges from isolation, millions could flee the country; hundreds of thousands more could leave Burma, too, if the military junta were to be toppled. The rest of Asia needs to figure out how it’s going respond before that happens.