Asian countries agree on steps against people-smuggling

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NUSA DUA: A forum of mainly Asian countries agreed on Wednesday on new contingency measures to better respond to refugee crises, and vowed to review the region’s much-criticised handling of a major migrant influx last year.

The announcement at a conference on Indonesia’s Bali island on people smuggling and illegal migration was welcomed by the UN refugee agency, which declared it the first agreement of its kind in the 14-year history of the regional forum.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — who co-chaired the meeting of the forum, which has 45 member states — said regional officials could now convene emergency meetings and fast-track an “agile and timely” response in the event of an unfolding migrant crisis.

Officials also agreed to review the response to the Southeast Asian refugee emergency in May last year, when thousands of asylum seekers in rickety boats were stranded at sea in the biggest regional migrant crisis since the end of the Vietnam War.

A Thai crackdown on the lucrative smuggling industry prompted traffickers to abandon their human cargo at sea, sparking a crisis that saw more than 3,500 Bangladeshi economic migrants and stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar land in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia and Indonesia triggered international outrage by initially turning away boatloads of the desperate migrants, but eventually relented under heavy international pressure.

Bishop, who chaired the ministerial-level meeting alongside her Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, said there were concerns that during the crisis, no mechanism existed to galvanise the region “in a timely fashion”.

“We believe that this will give us that opportunity to do so,” she said of the new arrangement.

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