Thursday, May 14, 2015

A regional crisis with roots in Myanmar

Thailand must act urgently to combat the trafficking of people along its coastline, but only Nay Pyi Taw has the power to end refugees' misery

As many as 8,000 Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis seeking better lives elsewhere are stranded in boats in the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits.

Worse, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are refusing to take them in, and are instead pushing them back to the ocean, where starvation and possibly death await.

In 2009 Thailand came under close scrutiny for towing out to sea a boat carrying 300 Rohingya seeking to land on our shores. About 100 were later rescued at sea; the rest remain unaccounted for.

To this day the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia feel no shame in maintaining such cold-hearted policies.

In 2009 Thai officials were keen to dismiss the boats packed with Rohingya as a one-off occurrence, but in fact that was only the start of a major wave of human trafficking in which Thailand's southernmost provinces have become transit points.

After the discovery in the far South of scores of shallow graves containing the remains of suspected migrants - some of which are just stone's throw away from military and police outposts - the region's governments are belatedly coming together to seek solutions.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is finally pushing for Myanmar to engage in talks with Thailand and Malaysia over this problem. The roots of this crisis lie in the persecution of the Rohingya, which began with their being stripped of citizenship by Burma in the early 1980s.

It is not yet clear whether Thailand or other regional governments have the courage to tell Myanmar's quasi-military rulers that their policy is hurting neighbouring countries.

In the meantime Thailand is mulling temporary camps for Rohingya and other illegal migrants. The idea is long overdue and could do much to curb the scourge of people-trafficking. Better yet, Thailand should invite the United Nations refugee agency and international NGOs to assist in running the shelters to ensure transparency and accountability.

The alternative for Thailand and its neighbours is to carry on with business as usual, in which case the problem will only get worse. As things stand, Thailand's reputation on human trafficking is already at low ebb.

While Thai authorities prefer to view the Rohingya as illegal aliens, the international community sees them as a stateless people vulnerable to near-slavery in certain business sectors such as the Thai fishing industry.

Rohingya are traded from Myanmar and shipped by boat to the Thai shore, then moved to scores of secret holding centres scattered in woods along the Malaysian border. There they wait to cross into Malaysia, where they have been promised work and better lives.

Each stage of their transit costs more money, and if they can't make the payments, they get sold to toil on fishing trawlers. Female victims have recounted being sold to brothels.

Sadly, Thai authorities have played a role in this heartless cycle. After making arrests in response to news reports or pressure from rights groups, corrupt officials have reportedly sold "rescued" migrants back to the traffickers.

Some observers suggest we crack down on these migrants by charging them with illegal entry, but any such legal means ignore the humanitarian nature of this problem, which is rooted in Myanmar's refusal to grant citizenship to the Muslim Rohingya - despite their having lived in the country for generations.

Moreover, Thailand's immigration detention facilities have capacity for a relatively small number of people and would be overwhelmed by the thousands of refugees now on the move.

We could forcibly repatriate these migrants back to Myanmar, but that would be a gross violation of international norms.

Though it might upset those Thais who hold xenophobic attitudes towards the migrants, setting up camps and permitting outside help is morally the right thing to do. It's also the most practical option to stem the damage being done to the country's reputation.

But temporary shelters can only be a stopgap measure. Myanmar's leadership must be made to realise that the actions it takes now in dealing with the Rohingya will define how the world perceives our countries for years to come. The Nation, Bangkok

1 comment:

  1. Southeast Asia Scrambles to Deal With Migrant Crisis
    Up to 10,000 refugees may be adrift off the coast of Southeast Asian states without food or water.
    Up to 10,000 would-be refugees, many from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority group, are believed to be adrift off the coast of Southeast Asia with little to no food or water, sparking talk of a humanitarian crisis.
    Reporters for the New York Times approached one boat in the Andaman Sea and were greeted by “cries of ‘Please help us! I have no water!’” Passengers told the journalists they had been on board the boat for six months and had been abandoned by the captain and crew, who had previously provided them with food and water.
    The Jakarta Post reports that around 2,000 migrants have been rescued or intercepted by Malaysia or Indonesia – and some of that number jumped off their boats and made a desperate swim for shore. An estimated 8,000 – 10,000 migrants are believed to still be at sea, in dire conditions.
    Regional governments have said that they are not able to take in any more refugees. According to Associated Press, Malaysia turned away two boats full of roughly 800 migrants while Thailand refused to accept a third boat. Indonesia also sent away a boat carrying “thousands of passengers,” according to the New York Times. Human rights advocates have accused regional governments of playing “ping pong” with the refugees and warned of a looming humanitarian disaster should the refugees remain on the boats.
    Both Malaysia and Thailand say they have given food and provisions to the refugees, though not allowing them to enter the country. Malaysia previously looked the other way, allowing Rohingya to enter its borders, but the scale of the current crisis appears to have changed that calculus.
    Government officials say they simply cannot afford to take in migrants. “What do you expect us to do?” Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar told AP. “We have treated them humanely but they cannot be flooding our shores like this… We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.”
    General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s prime minister, had a similar message. “”If we take them all in, then anyone who wants to come will come freely… No one wants them.”
    Prayuth’s message is painfully blunt, but captures the essential problem: no regional countries are willing to take in the refugees, fearing a massive influx of migrants would follow. The Rohingya, a Muslim population in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are not even considered citizens of their home country. Instead, as Gemima Harvey wrote for The Diplomat last year:
    The government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group, even in official documents, as “Bengali.” This stems from a pervasive belief that all Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a conviction widely held despite records of Rohingya families living in Myanmar for centuries.
    Facing violence and persecution in Myanmar, an estimated 120,000 Rohingya have attempted to flee the country since 2012, often by paying human traffickers to help them escape by boat. The current crisis is believed to stem from a recent crackdown on such human trafficking in Thailand, a common transit point for the migrants. Fearing arrest, some traffickers reportedly have simply abandoned their human cargo in the middle of the ocean.
    Thailand has said it will host a regional summit on May 29 to discuss the crisis. But human rights activists warn it may be too late by then. Joe Lowry of the International Organization for Migration warned that time is of the essence: “if these people aren’t treated and brought to shore soon we are going to have a boat full of corpses.”
    By Shannon Tiezzi