In the past month, more than 3,000 desperate, hungry people have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, drawing international attention to a crisis in Southeast Asia. Arrivals of the overcrowded boats – crammed with Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and impoverished Bangladeshis hoping to find jobs – have now slowed. But the crisis is far from over, and will be the topic of a Friday conference in Bangkok to be attended by senior officials from across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
(Globe in Indonesia: Rohingya move from one bleak horizon to another)
Understanding the migrant crisis
Minority Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing predominantly Buddhist Myanmar for decades, and paying human traffickers with flimsy boats to take them away from violence and state-sanctioned discrimination.
For years, Southeast Asia has quietly ignored the issue, partly because of a policy of not publicly criticizing each other’s governments. But recently the problem became too big to overlook. Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking earlier this month that prompted smugglers to abandon their boats, leaving what aid groups estimated were thousands of migrants stranded at sea. Survivors came ashore with firsthand accounts of beatings, kidnappings and near-starvation. Malaysian authorities are still sifting through mass burial sites that have been uncovered near traffickers’ camps.
(Globe in Indonesia: Police find mass migrant burial sites)
Who’s going, and where do they stand?
Thailand has invited representatives from 17 countries directly and indirectly affected by “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean.” Most countries have made clear they are not keen to take in the Rohingya or the Bangladeshi migrants, fearing that accepting a few will invite many more.
Myanmar: Myanmar’s government denies the Rohingya citizenship, making them effectively stateless. It views the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya living in dire conditions in western Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Officials initially said that none of the boat people came from Myanmar, and threatened to boycott the talks if the word “Rohingya” appeared on the invitiation. It was left out.
Malaysia and Indonesia: The two countries agreed last week to provide the migrants with one-year shelter. Indonesia says Rohingya can stay for a year while Bangladeshis will be repatriated. It is unclear what happens after a year, and both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement options.
Thailand: Thailand has offered “humanitarian help” but not shelter. More than 100,000 refugees, mostly from Myanmar’s other ethnic groups, have been living in border camps for decades, and Thailand says it can’t afford any more.
Bangladesh: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said migrants who fled Bangladesh are “mentally sick” to have risked their lives on dangerous boats. She said they have “tainted” the country’s image abroad and vowed to punish them.
Australia: “Nope, nope, nope” was Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s response when asked if Australia would resettle any of the Rohingya or Bangladeshis. “We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats.”
Other nations attending: Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Iran, Laos, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam
Other nations observing: Representatives from the United States, Japan and Switzerland will participate as observers, along with officials from international organizations including the UN refugee agency, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Organization for Migration.
(Globe in Indonesia: Migrants find safety in Indonesia, but face burden of failure)
What are the meeting’s goals?
International human-rights groups have urged the countries to prioritize and address the most urgent problems.
Human Rights Watch called on Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to find a better, co-ordinated method of saving the people still stranded at sea – and urged Thailand to allow migrants to disembark on their shores.
It urged the governments to put pressure on Myanmar to end the repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee. It also called on Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia to allow the UNHCR and IOM full access to rescued boat people to determine refugee status and other protection needs.
(Globe in Indonesia: “It was like a killing field in the sea”)