Safer Waters: An Asylum Policy for Singapore?

BY THEOPHILUS KWEK

Over 400,000 Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar since August, the latest episode in a cycle of conflict and displacement that has afflicted the predominantly Muslim community. This exodus, described by a top UN official as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’, has thrown up uncomfortable questions for Myanmar’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who espouse a policy of ‘non-interference’ in each other’s affairs. Members have neither presented a unified response to the crisis nor stepped forward to shelter the Rohingya, choosing instead to offer in-country humanitarian assistance, while putting diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to end the violence.

Singapore – ASEAN’s richest and smallest member – has taken a notably conservative stance compared to its neighbours. In mid-2015, while Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand met to discuss possible solutions, the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that Singapore was ‘not in a position’ to accept any asylum-seekers, on account of its small size. This policy has remained essentially unchanged throughout this crisis, as well as other crises of displacement in the region.

Although the question of asylum (unlike that of immigration) is not generally a matter of public debate in Singapore, many have voiced support for the government’s position. In their view, accepting and resettling the Rohingya is an idealistic proposition that ‘cannot override [the] reality’ of our geographical and social constraints. In truth, however, Singapore’s options are wider than most imagine. Considering these possibilities in light of our policy context could pave the way for thoughtful conversations about what Singapore can – and should – do.

What Are Singapore’s Options? 

The most straightforward humanitarian response to any crisis of displacement is immediate territorial asylum. This can be distinguished from long-term political asylum, which may include the regularization of stay within the host country, and the creation of pathways to citizenship. Immediate territorial asylum provides displaced persons with a temporary safe haven where their urgent needs are met while they can figure out their next steps – an essential intervention which spells the difference between life and death. Affording short-term asylum to the Rohingya is perhaps what most commentators have in mind when considering Singapore’s response: some fear that an influx of Rohingya will ‘lead to social backlash’, while others feel there is ‘simply no room’ for them.

Decades ago, Singapore provided immediate territorial asylum to refugees from Vietnam. From 1978 to 1996, a refugee camp was jointly established at Hawkins Road with the UN to provide for ‘boat people’ fleeing South Vietnam, on the basis of an ‘open shore for an open door’; specifically, by welcoming the asylum-seekers and tending to their basic needs on the condition that they were repatriated or resettled elsewhere within 90 days. While controversial even at the time (not least for entrenching the view that countries like Singapore bear no responsibility for the refugees’ longer-term futures), the policy created a way for Singapore to provide immediate rescue for 32,457 asylum-seekers with minimal social disruption – and with the active cooperation of local NGOs and residents.

Singapore’s ‘open shore’ relied on the willingness of other countries to resettle the refugees on an indefinite basis – China, for example, took in 260,000. Likewise, any asylum policy today cannot exist without a plan for the longer term: displacement, after all, not only threatens one’s survival but also severs one’s social and political ties. Restoring that loss entails finding a society where a refugee might seek meaningful employment, rebuild their social world, and settle indefinitely if the situation at home does not improve. In the absence of resettlement offers from the international community, might Singapore be able to meet the longer-term needs of at least some refugees?

One option is to provide permanent asylum to unaccompanied refugee children fleeing Myanmar. UNICEF reports that minors account for at least 60% of the displaced Rohingya: these children are not only malnourished and traumatized, but have also lost access to viable futures. By facilitating foster care, creating places in schools, and providing language support, Singapore could not only meet their needs, but also partially offset our declining birth rate. Raised in Singaporean households, Rohingya children would be welcomed into our increasingly diverse classrooms and subsequently gain naturalized citizenship. A policy of this nature was proposed by Lord Alfred Dubs in 2016: under it, the British government would have offered up to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to the UK.

Another option is to improve access to employment in Singapore through existing frameworks. Singapore’s economy depends heavily on foreign employees, and many refugees possess valuable skills for our workforce. Finding employment here would provide the Rohingya with relative stability, and a chance to provide for their families. Encouraging this through flexible work permits and job-matching programmes would benefit both them and us. Jordan has implemented a similar policy, where international investors support firms hiring Syrian refugees in highly-specific sectors. But a better approach would allow refugees more say in seeking employment. The Compact of Free Association, for example, allows those fleeing the effects of climate change in some Pacific island nations to work in the US, without intervening in American businesses or limiting the refugees’ options.

Such policies can also operate on a regional level. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for example, has a three-year residence permit which allows holders to live and work in any of ECOWAS’s fifteen member-states. In 2009, the UN sponsored these permits on a renewable basis for Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees residing in other ECOWAS states such as Nigeria and the Gambia, and research suggests that many have integrated well into their host economies. As ASEAN pursues closer economic integration, a parallel framework is possible in Southeast Asia.

None of these options is ideal. Providing asylum to unaccompanied minors will meet some of the most urgent needs, but may encourage the outflow of Rohingya youth, who are crucial to the community’s long-term survival. An employment-driven policy, on the other hand, would cater to skilled and able-bodied refugees, leaving behind those unable to work, and hit hardest by the crisis. Nevertheless, these options prompt us to re-examine the simple dichotomy of the open or shut door. They also play to our strengths, not our shortcomings: as a diverse city-state with first-world infrastructure, a greying population and a thriving foreign workforce, Singapore has more absorptive capacity than we think.

Our Policy Context

Any dialogue about asylum in Singapore, however, must face up to public policy and opinion. Singapore’s options are limited, first, by the fact that we have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which obliges states to provide asylum for persecuted individuals. But fellow ASEAN non-signatories have shown that legal protections are still possible. President Jokowi, for example, recently incorporated the Convention’s definition of refugeehood into Indonesian law, allowing state agencies to coordinate rescue operations for the Rohingya at sea. Other countries have evolved frameworks granting various rights to asylum-seekers: in Malaysia’s case, allowing the Rohingya to work in the manufacturing and plantation sectors for three years. Singapore could follow suit in devising a similar arrangement.

Beyond our legal context, Singapore’s options are also constrained by demographic policy. Indeed, our government’s reluctance to provide asylum must be understood in light of ‘highly targeted’ attempts to control the rate and composition of immigration. Sociologist Youyenn Teo points out that while specifics ‘remain opaque to the public’, the state is seen to control immigration to maintain Singapore’s ethnic ‘balance’, and to ensure that ‘only [migrants] who fill niches that are inadequately filled by Singaporeans need apply’. Any policy which compromises its ability to decide on who may live here, or incurs costs of short-term protection and longer-term integration, may thus be deemed undesirable.

These concerns are also linked to public opinion on immigration. Widespread criticism of the Population White Paper in 2013, together with grievances aired ahead of the General Elections in 2011 and 2015, revealed the depth of popular discontent over the government’s management of population growth and immigration. Recent policies, such as the levy on hiring foreigners, suggest that the government is not insensitive to these sentiments. Political considerations may thus feature tacitly in the government’s refusal to accept refugees, the urgency of their needs and potential benefits to Singapore notwithstanding.

A final consideration involves the concerns that underwrite public security in Singapore. In recent years, the state has embarked on a ‘whole-of-government’ effort to secure the country against terrorist attacks: an approach vividly illustrated in this year’s National Day Parade. This has led to sweeping securitization measures intended to maintain ‘public order’ and social stability, from weekend curfews in areas frequented by migrant workers, to strict regulations on public protest. The fact that the Rohingya are increasingly associated, almost always unfairly, with threats to regional security – from Islamic terrorism to demographic instability – is likely to stand in the way of asylum.

These and other policy constraints suggest that there are many other reasons, beyond sheer capacity, behind Singapore’s current position. They also give us a sense of the priorities and perceptions that must be shifted before a rigorous consideration of Singapore’s available policy options can take place. Ultimately, though, our response to a crisis like this will not only reflect who we are to our neighbours and the world, but shape the society that our children will grow up in. Let us act with compassion, but also with creativity, and a willingness to confront our own established habits. These qualities have guided us from the start. They should not fail us now.

Theophilus Kwek is a writer and researcher based in Singapore. He has recently completed a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University.

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Image Credit: Image (“Myanmar/Burma: Little hope for Rohinya IDPs”) by Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, in Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, September 2013. Used without modifications under Creative Commons 2.0 licensing.

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