South-East Asian Boat People Get Reprieve but Crisis Far From Over

KUALA LUMPUR (DPA) — The decision of Malaysia and Indonesia to allow thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people to land might put a temporary end to one of the worst humanitarian crises the region has faced in recent times, but the problem is far from over, activists and officials said.

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia emphasized that the decision was a stop-gap measure, as these migrants must be relocated to third countries within a year and a permanent solution to the problem of Rohingyas in Myanmar needs to be found.

Refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh are rescued by Aceh fisherman in Julok, East Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, 20 May 2015. EPA 

"We … agreed to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," the foreign ministers of the three countries said in a statement after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur that Myanmar did not attend.


The ministers appeared to have bowed to the international outrage over their earlier decision to prevent the migrants aboard rickety boats from entering their waters or coming ashore.

On Tuesday, the UN high commissioners for human rights and refugees, the UN special representative for migration and the International Organization for Migration, demanded that the three countries give priority to saving lives and respecting human dignity.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have turned the tables on their critics, urging them to do their share in helping the boat people.

"Malaysia and Indonesia invite other countries in the region to join in this endeavour," the three foreign ministers said.

"Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand call upon the international community to uphold their responsibility and urgently share the burden of providing the necessary support," they added.

The three countries called on the international community to provide financial assistance, especially in building temporary housing for the migrants, as well as ensuring that these migrants will be repatriated or resettled in a third country within a year.

They also wanted the problem to be dealt with at source.

"The root causes and other contributory factors to the recent influx of irregular migrants should be immediately identified and addressed by the parties concerned," the ministers said.

Malaysia Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said that the Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people were "trafficked voluntarily" because they made payments to smugglers to get them out of their country.

While Bangladeshi boat people can be considered economic migrants because they left their country to escape poverty and seek better lives, the same cannot be said for the tens of thousands of Rohingya boat people who are persecuted in their homeland in Myanmar, Rohingya activists said.

The Arakan Rohingya National Organization said the Rohingya boat people are fleeing large-scale persecution and mass atrocities in Myanmar.

"We reiterate that the root cause of these human tragedies should be addressed," it said in a statement.

"The Burmese/Myanmar government has to bear all responsibility for the untold sufferings of the Rohingya people for not allowing them to have a peaceful living in their own homeland," it added.

Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization in Malaysia, urged the 10-country Association of South-East Asian Nations – of which Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia are members – to address the Rohingya problem.

Zafar said the influx of thousands of Rohingya boat people in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is proof that Rohingyas are facing systematic prosecution in Myanmar.

"We face gross human rights violations by the state, we became victims of genocide for generations and left to die in horrible makeshift camps in our own homeland without food, water and medicine supply from the government," he said.

"Due to the horrible situation we face in our homeland, we take risks to flee the country to seek refuge in other countries," he added.

The Myanmar government has a different take on the issue. It maintained that the more than 1 million Muslim Rohingyas were ethnic Bengalis who illegally migrated to Myanmar from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Myanmar has consistently refused to discuss the issue in ASEAN and maintained the Rohingya issue is an internal problem.

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian member of parliament, said ASEAN must confront the Rohingya issue squarely.

"The Rohingya problem is a thorny issue for ASEAN," he said. "For more than a decade ASEAN skirted the issue. I don't think they can still continue doing that."


Santiago, who is also the chairman of the ASEAN parliamentarians for human rights, urged Malaysia – this year's chairman of ASEAN – to go beyond palliative measures in addressing the Rohingya issue.

"Rohingya refugees are not one particular country's problem but it is ASEAN's problem," he said. "The crisis is far from over."

(Reporting by John Grafilo)
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