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A boat with Rohingya migrants on board that was found drifting on the sea border between Thailand and Malaysia on Thursday. (Photo: Thanaporn Promyamyai/AFP/Getty Images)

Refugee Crisis Mounts in South East Asia as 'Stateless' People Turned Back to Sea

'It is crucial that countries in the region launch coordinated search and rescue operations to save those at sea – anything less could be a death sentence for thousands of people.'

Jon Queally

A long-simmering refugee crisis in South East Asia has quickly garnered international attention as thousands of 'stateless peoples'—mostly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and poverty-stricken Bangladeshis abandoned at sea—have been refused to come ashore in Malaysia, which says it can no longer afford to "be nice" to those seeking safe harbor with nowhere left to go.

On Thursday, government officials turned away two boats thought to be carrying as many as 800 refugees. Thousands of others are believed to be on similar vessels in waters off the coast of Thailand, in the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Strait of Malacca which separates mainland Malaysia from Indonesia.

As the Associated Press reports:

Indonesia and Thailand also appeared unwilling to provide refuge to men, women and children, despite appeals by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, international aid agencies and rights activists, who warned lives were at risk.

Fearing arrests, captains tied to trafficking networks have in recent days abandoned ships in the busy Malacca Strait and surrounding waters, leaving behind their human cargo, in many cases with little food or water, according to survivors.

Around 1,600 have been rescued, but an estimated 6,000 remain stranded at sea.

Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi said about 500 people on board a boat found Wednesday off the coast of northern Penang state — three days after more than a thousand refugees landed on nearby Langkawi island — were given provisions and then sent on their way.

"What do you expect us to do?" he said. "We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. 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," he said.

Matthew Smith, executive director of nonprofit human rights group Fortify Rights, called the situation "a grave humanitarian crisis demanding an immediate response" from governments in the region and the international community. "Lives are on the line," he said.

The Guardian adds:

Malaysia, which is not a signatory to international conventions on refugees, is host to more than 150,000 refugees and people seeking asylum, the majority from Burma. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingya, according to the UN refugee agency.

But because they have no legal status, job opportunities are limited. They also have little or no access to basic services such as education and healthcare, and are vulnerable to arrests and deportation. A small number are resettled in third countries.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia accused Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia of playing “a three-way game of human ping pong”. At the same time, the three countries and others in south-east Asia have for years bowed to the wishes of Burma at regional conferences, avoiding all discussions of state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya.

Kate Schuetze, the Asia-Pacific researcher with Amnesty International, also called for an urgent response. "Governments in South East Asia must act immediately to stop this unfolding humanitarian crisis," Schuetze said. "It is crucial that countries in the region launch coordinated search and rescue operations to save those at sea – anything less could be a death sentence for thousands of people."

In recent days, according to Amnesty:

... increasing numbers of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have arrived by boat in Malaysia and Indonesia. At least one boat with some 400 people believed to be Rohingya was on Monday towed out to sea by the Indonesian Navy, off the coast of Aceh, after it was provided with food and fuel.

A crackdown on irregular arrivals in Thailand seems to have forced smugglers and traffickers to look for new routes. The International Organization for Migration believes that 8,000 people may still be on boats close to Thailand.

The thousands of people who have fled Bangladesh and Myanmar include vulnerable migrants, refugees such as Muslim Rohingya fleeing discrimination and violence in Myanmar, and victims of human trafficking. Many are desperate enough to put their own lives at risk by braving dangerous journeys at sea in order to escape unbearable conditions at home.

 "It’s harrowing to think that hundreds of people are right now drifting in a boat perilously close to dying, without food or water, and without even knowing where they are," Schuetza added. "The thousands of lives at risk should be the immediate priority, but the root causes of this crisis must also be addressed. The fact that thousands of Rohingya prefer a dangerous boat journey they may not survive to staying in Myanmar speaks volumes about the conditions they face there."

The U.N High Commission for Refugees last week issued a serious warning on the escalating crisis in South East Asia and called for an elevated response.

"Considering the growing scale and severity of the boat exodus," said spokesperson Adrian Edwards, "UNHCR calls on countries in the region to work more closely together to counter the smuggling and trafficking of vulnerable people. Regarding the much-needed efforts to crack down on this illicit trade, international law prescribes an important distinction between smugglers and traffickers involved in criminal activities on the one hand and the victims of smuggling and trafficking on the other."

Edwards added, "Law enforcement measures must also be accompanied by efforts to reduce the need for migrants and refugees to turn to smugglers in the first place, including by addressing the root causes driving people to undertake these dangerous journeys and providing safe alternatives for them to access asylum and protection."


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