Skip to main content

World Asia’s migrant crisis: Who’s going to Friday’s summit, and where do they stand?

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.

(S. Yulinnas/Associated Press)

(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.

Muhammad Malik describes weeks at sea, with smugglers who beat Bangladeshi migrants for talking or standing up. (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail)

(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.

Pawang Saiful was among the fishing boat captains who came to the rescue of migrants off the shores of Indonesia’s Sumatra. (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail)

(Globe in Indonesia: “It was like a killing field in the sea”)

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.