More than 1,500 migrants have come ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia this week, fleeing persecution in Myanmar, others leaving Bangladesh to seek a better life, echoing the dangerous exodus across the Mediterranean by migrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
BANGKOK — The Indonesian navy turned back a ship laden with migrants Tuesday as experts warned that thousands of would-be arrivals from Myanmar and Bangladesh risked being stranded at sea.
The wooden ship was carrying thousands of passengers and had run out of fuel, said Maj. Gen. Fuad Basya, a spokesman for the Indonesian army. He said boarding the vessel would have been risky because of the large number of people on board.
“We finally decided to give them enough fuel and food so they could get to their destinations, to Malaysia,” he said. “They should not have entered Indonesian waters without our permission.”
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority brought from India by the British during their colonial rule to work in Burma, the majority-Buddhist country now called Myanmar. The government of Myanmar considers the country’s approximately 1.33 million Rohingya illegal settlers, and in 1982 stripped them of their citizenship, restricted their access to education, services and freedom of movement, and allowed property to be taken arbitrarily. More than 140,000 Rohingya live in internally displaced persons camps around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, in southwest Myanmar, where they are entirely dependent on international assistance. More than 200,000 Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh, according to Refugees International.
Seattle Times news services
The Thai government, which began a crackdown in recent weeks on human-trafficking networks, announced Tuesday that it had convened a meeting with representatives from governments around the region to help with “exchanges of information and intelligence on the current situation on irregular migration by sea.” But the meeting will not take place until the end of May.
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More than 1,500 migrants have come ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia over the past three days, leaving governments struggling to respond to the wave of refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar and others leaving Bangladesh for better job prospects in wealthier countries.
The crisis has echoes of Europe’s problems curtailing the stream of migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from the Middle East and North Africa, but unlike the European Union, countries in Southeast Asia appear to be going it alone in their response to the flotillas of desperate people.
“This issue is quite urgent,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government adviser and security expert at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. “It’s a very clear humanitarian issue — you need to rescue these people — but you have political complications and economic complications.”
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is preparing to form a regionwide single economic community by the end of the year, “doesn’t have a proper mechanism and is struggling with this,” Panitan said.
As a measure of the minimal regional cooperation, one of the leading sources of information on the Asian exodus is a Belgian woman, Chris Lewa, who tracks migration in the Andaman Sea. Lewa, who estimates that 6,000 to 20,000 migrants are still at sea, is following the fate of one particular boat believed to be anchored somewhere off the coast of southern Thailand or the northern Malaysian Peninsula.
Lewa has been in touch with passengers on the boat who communicate with her using a Thai cellphone. The captain and crew of the boat fled Sunday, and the 350 passengers, including 50 women and 84 children, ran out of food three days ago, the passengers told her. “They can see land on the horizon,” she said.
She asked a journalist to contact Malaysian authorities to help find the abandoned boat. “You can’t just let these people die at sea,” she said.
The interception of boats in territorial waters is a gray area of international law, according to the United Nations. “An internationally accepted definition of interception does not exist,” says a document by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency encourages governments to abide by the principle of not returning refugees to countries where they are at risk of persecution. The issue is clouded by the question of whether boat people are economic migrants or political refugees.
The migrants from Myanmar are mostly members of the Rohingya ethnic group, a Muslim people who have been persecuted by the government and by radical Buddhists in western Myanmar.
More than 1,000 migrants came ashore on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi on Monday. An additional 582 landed Sunday near Lhokseumawe, Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra.
In 2002, dozens of governments and U.N. agencies established the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. The organization’s mission is “to reduce irregular migration in the Asia and Pacific region,” according to its website.
Yet despite an estimated 25,000 migrants boarding boats this year in desperate conditions from Myanmar and Bangladesh, there has been little evidence of regional cooperation.
Many of the boats were destined for Thailand, a way station for migrants whose final destination is often Malaysia.
The Myanmar government until now has rejected multilateral talks on the issue. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a former Thai representative to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, describes continued obstruction by Myanmar at regional meetings. The issue of the Rohingya is proposed but not discussed because Myanmar delegates argue that the Rohingya are not Southeast Asian people and that discussing the matter is interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
“I have been arguing that it doesn’t matter where they are from,” Sriprapha said. “To me, as a human-rights worker, it doesn’t matter where they are from — they are now in our territory. They are entitled to our protection.”
Swept under rug
The difference with the European Union is that migration issues are often swept under the carpet in Southeast Asia because they are considered too contentious, Sriprapha said. “The difference is that they can discuss it openly, not like us,” she said.
Malaysia, a Muslim majority country, has in recent years turned a blind eye to the illegal immigration of the refugees, who are also Muslim.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 620 people have died at sea during voyages from the Bay of Bengal since October. The deaths were “primarily as a result of starvation, dehydration, and beatings by boat crews,” the agency said in a report released last week. The agency based its findings on interviews with migrants who reached Thailand and Malaysia.
“A few interviewees also told of entire boats sinking, but there was no way to verify such reports or if, and how many, lives were lost,” the agency said.
Around half the people who took the journey this year originated from Myanmar, according to U.N. estimates. The other half came from Bangladesh, some of whom also identify as Rohingya and are living in refugee camps on the Bangladeshi side.
The reasons for the departure of the Rohingya, who are stateless and persecuted, is fairly self-evident, say experts: They are no longer wanted in what for many if not most of them is the land of their birth. Attacks by Buddhist gangs on Rohingya villages over the past three years caused 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya, to lose their homes. The United Nations said Tuesday that 40,000 of the displaced people are living in camps within several hundred yards of the coast “and particularly vulnerable” during the monsoon season, which begins next month.
The reason that the Bangladeshis are departing appears to be more technical. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis have gone to work in Malaysia, and many are eager to join relatives there. Taking an informal sea voyage, say experts, is seen as a cheap alternative that avoids the bureaucracy, brokers’ fees and corruption involved in getting official permission.