News coverage of the research that The Habibie Center is doing on the feasibility of an ASEAN Common visa scheme.
As ASEAN becomes more economically and politically integrated, ways must be found to facilitate a secure and freer movement of people in the 10-member bloc. Officials and experts on immigration affairs from ASEAN countries say the time has come for all ASEAN members to have a common visa scheme akin to that of the European Union. However, they also said that, given the grouping’s diversity and respect for national sovereignty, such a scheme would not be easy to implement.
“It is a long and challenging process,” confided Dr Alexander C. Chandra, senior researcher of the Habibie Center. He pointed out that every country has its own visa regimes reflecting its government’s thinking and world view. Even within ASEAN, not all countries allow visa-free entry.
Between 2010 and 2014, intra-ASEAN tourist arrivals increased from 35 million to 55 million. To keep the pace with the rising demand in tourism and fully reap its economic benefits, ASEAN should facilitate the process of obtaining a visa and establish a strong regional agreement on free intra-ASEAN travel.
To help ASEAN members to understand this complex issue, EU and Lyon-based Interpol have set up an EU-ASEAN Migration and Border Management Programme, which is aimed at helping ASEAN members explore an appropriate model that promotes free travel, people-to-people contacts and economic growth without jeopardising members’ national security.
Harold O’Connell, Interpol’s director of capacity building and training, said that a common visa policy is part of the ASEAN connectivity goal that was announced in 2010. Therefore, ASEAN members must improve their capacities to manage and control their borders as the group’s integration continues.
He said that trust among member countries is pivotal in designing a common visa policy. In the EU, he added, it is the trust factor that enabled all member countries to remove visa requirements and encourage people to travel unimpeded.
In order to reap economic benefits, ASEAN has to be more relaxed on sovereignty and border issues while at the same time being strong enough to fight transnational security threats, according to Muhammad Arif, another researcher at the Habibie Center.
Within ASEAN, he said, national sovereignty and jurisdiction, non-interference, border management information and intelligence sharing are still sacrosanct. “The recent tendency to over-securitise transnational crimes might further hinder the plan to establish an ASEAN common visa system,” he said.
These days, he added, South East Asian countries are increasingly linking foreign and security policy with domestic matters because there are struggles for legitimacy in several South East Asian capitals.
Elina Noor, director of Foreign Policy and Security Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, listed five challenges confronting ASEAN in drawing up a common visa policy. First, she said, there is no harmonisation between a visa policy for ASEAN and non-ASEAN citizens. Also, Malaysia, as a federal country in which each state has its own immigration policy, must unify these different policies.
Second, ASEAN must improve reciprocity and political relations among its members. “At the moment, Malaysia and Myanmar still do not have a consensus on a visa waiver,” she said.
Another big challenge will be the ability of enforcement officials to implement immigrant laws and border controls along the porous frontier. They still need capacity-building to cope with the challenges. With the ongoing threat from terrorists and extremists, she said, these groups may exploit a common visa scheme to their advantage.
Finally, Noor said, ASEAN needs to look at the effects on privacy of increased violations of cybersecurity, which has become a greater priority in the EU.
The Habibie Center will complete a report on whether it is feasible for ASEAN to have a common visa and issue its recommendations by early next year.
At the 19th ASEAN summit in Bali in 2011, the grouping’s leaders gave the green light to senior officials to study the possibility of having a common visa. Since then, there have been discussions and workshops on capacity-building related to immigration and border controls.