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Despite its limitations, the Bali Process is the main game in town when it comes to dealing with forced migration in the Asia-Pacific.

The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime will hold a full ministerial meeting in Bali this Wednesday. The meeting will bring together ministers from 45 member countries for the first time in three years.

The global context for the meeting is the current levels of displacement. Sixty million people are displaced – the highest level since the second world war. And governments around the world are struggling to respond effectively.

This is a critical opportunity for the Bali Process to rise to a new level. Ministers should not miss the chance to reach consensus on how best to respond to forced migration in the Asia-Pacific region.

Similar causes, longer distances

There is every sign the underlying causes of forced migration – war, repression, ethnic conflict, climate change displacement, societal exclusion and rampant human trafficking – will continue. What’s new is that displaced people who previously might have stayed and suffered in extremely difficult circumstances close to home now can – and do – move long distances across multiple borders in large numbers in the hope of alleviating their misery.

Information about potential migration opportunities is available in the palm of their hand through smartphones. Travel is cheaper. Facilitators of clandestine movement (whether smugglers or corrupt officials) are readily available. Mobility can be related to transnational crime too, including illegal fishing and drug trafficking.

Economic migrants seeking better opportunities also use the same routes and facilitators as forced migrants, and are often inextricably mixed up with them.

In the Asia-Pacific, for the time being, most displaced populations are stable. However, the problem of exclusion and displacement of stateless Rohingya from Myanmar remains fundamentally unsolved. It can be expected to continue.

The future stability of Afghanistan, the largest source of refugees over the past 30 years, remains uncertain.

What is the Bali Process exactly?

Australia and Indonesia set up the Bali Process in 2002. The role of Indonesian leadership in bringing a wide group of countries into the fold was vital.

In a region where few countries are parties to the UN Refugee Convention and forced migration issues are managed almost exclusively on a self-interested national basis, it was a great leap forward.

The process allowed a regional forum for source, transit and destination countries to discuss their respective roles and responsibilities for the forced movement of people. It led the charge on the criminalisation of people smuggling, allowing law enforcement agencies to work together to exchange information and best practices.

The process facilitated limited discussion of refugee protection issues. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was a key participant. A Regional Support Office was established in Bangkok to provide support and expertise to regional governments.

The Bali Process’ inclusive nature has given governments the confidence to participate, but its vast size and diverse membership meant that it has stopped short of direct action in relation to major incidents of displacement. Its role was very limited in the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis.

Fourteen years after its establishment, this is not enough. The challenges are too big to be managed without more concerted co-operative action by its member countries.

Lessons from Europe

Europe’s attempts to deal with its refugee and migration crisis are instructive.

A union of 28 developed countries that are all parties to the Refugee Convention, have well-developed asylum laws, a common asylum system developed over many years and sophisticated immigration and border management agencies, is floundering. The core problem is lack of agreement on a strategic approach to displacement, burden-sharing and its implementation.

The Asia-Pacific is not immune to the challenges of mass displacement. A variety of scenarios could well lead to displacement on a similar scale.

And yet very few countries in the region are parties to the Refugee Convention. Few have comprehensive national policies or legislation. National implementation capabilities are also limited.

What could the Bali Process do?

Regional solutions will be different from those in Europe because of different legal systems. They will also be different to those found by the region in the past.

The response to the Indochinese refugee situation in the 1970s and 1980s highlighted the benefits of co-operative solutions, but its model reflected the unique strategic environment of the time.

The starting point should be agreement on avenues for concerted – rather than unilateral – action to prevent displacement before it occurs and better manage it collectively if it happens. In practice, this means the Bali Process should take the lead in convening smaller groups of “most affected” countries to broker collective action on particular situations of displacement. If possible, preventative action would be even better.

It also means the process should drive improvement in national and regional contingency planning to enable more predictable and effective responses to forced migration. It can also provide greater support to key member countries to develop the policies, legal systems and implementation capabilities to make these happen in ways that also provide an orderly system of protection.

There are positive signs that the senior officials co-ordinating the Bali Process for ministers understand what needs to happen. Their recent meeting in Bangkok endorsed a set of proposals to go to ministers that embrace this core agenda.

Some of their ideas drew on a Track II Dialogue on Forced Migration involving experts from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Myanmar, the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.

It remains to be seen whether ministers have the political will to take the Bali Process up to the next level. But if they don’t take this opportunity now, it’s highly likely they will be forced to do something under pressure down the track when a very large regional displacement crisis inevitably occurs.

In the long run, different mechanisms may be needed to prevent and deal with displacement issues in the region, not least within ASEAN, which recently adopted a Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. In the meantime, despite its limitations, the Bali Process is the main game in town.


  1. Travers McLeod

    Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

  2. Peter Hughes

    Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy and Visitor, Regnet School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University

  3. Sriprapha Petcharamesree

    Director of the International PhD Program in Human Rights and Peace Studies, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

  4. Steven Wong

    Deputy Chief Executive, Institute of Strategic and International Studies

  5. Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti

    Researcher, Research Centre for Politics, Indonesian Institute of Sciences