BANGKOK — Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are turning away thousands of Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees, prompting fears of a maritime humanitarian disaster in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar’s oppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority and a rise in the number of people fleeing poverty in Bangladesh mean that an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 refugees are currently adrift on boats in waters off the coasts of the three countries. According to the United Nations, there were more asylum seekers in the region during the first quarter of 2015 than at any time before.
Thailand’s long-standing slavery and human trafficking networks again came to the world’s attention on May 2, when police in southern Thailand unearthed a grave with 26 bodies of refugees. Since then, similar graves have been found at abandoned camps.
Thailand has launched an anti-trafficking crackdown and arrested dozens of suspects, including local officials and police. This has forced traffickers to change their usual route of sending refugees to the Thai coast and moving them overland to virtual prison camps near the border with Malaysia, a popular final destination because of its relative wealth. The traffickers have also been taking more boatloads of people to Indonesia and directly to Malaysia.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand’s military junta, has called a regional meeting for May 29 to resolve the crisis, but southeast Asian countries are increasingly at odds over who should take responsibility for the refugees. While Thailand first suggested setting up camps to manage the influx, it seems to have changed its mind and has followed Malaysia and Indonesia’s lead in preventing the boats from docking.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s navy intercepted a boatload of Rohingya and Bangladeshis and towed it away from the Sumatran coast. The navy said it provided the refugees with food, water and directions for getting to Malaysia.
Malaysia insists it will only allow boats in danger of sinking to dock. This week, several boats and hundreds of refugees were given food and water and then turned away from the Malaysian coast. Gen. Prayuth warned that Rohingya immigrants would steal jobs in Malaysia, while Malaysia said that it already had too many refugees.
“What do you expect us to do?” asked Wan Junaidi Jafaar, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, on Thursday. “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.
Later, Malaysian PM Najib Razak released a statement that played down the minister’s comments “I am very concerned with the plight of migrants in our region, some of whom have already reached our shores and still others who are trying,” said PM Najib.
Indonesia has sounded equally uncompromising despite the perilous conditions facing the drifting refugees. Fuad Basya, a spokesman for the Indonesian Army, said the refugees “should not have entered Indonesian waters without our permission.”
Despite Jakarta’s refusal to take any more boat arrivals, Thailand on Friday sent a boat with 400 Rohingya and Bangladeshis back to sea in the direction of Indonesia, while a boat with 700 more was assisted by fishermen to land at Langsa, on northern Sumatra, after reportedly being denied entry to Malaysia.
The countries’ actions echo scenes from 2008 and 2009, when Thailand had a policy of pushing back refugee boats. Australia has taken similar action in recent years. Both nations earned international censure.
The U.N. has pleaded with countries in the region to assist the refugees and warned of a “massive humanitarian disaster.”
“We hope that countries will assist those in need and facilitate disembarkation,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, Thailand’s chief of mission with the International Organization for Migration.
The organization is assisting 600 refugees who came ashore in Aceh, in the north of Indonesia’s Sumatra, and another 1,000 at Langkawi, a popular holiday resort on the Malaysian coast.
Some of the refugees had spent up to two months at sea. “People resemble human skeletons,” Labovitz told the Nikkei Asian Review. “Another 2% to 4% are severely malnourished, and another 40% malnourished.”
Labovitz estimates that the 1,600 refugees now being sheltered in Indonesia and Malaysia are divided half and half between Bangladeshis and Rohingya.
The refugee crisis puts renewed focus on Myanmar’s policies toward the Rohingya, who are estimated to number 1 million to 1.3 million. They live mostly in Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh. Myanmar does not include the Rohingya among the country’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, instead referring to them as “Bengali,” or foreigners.
In recent years, the Buddhist Rakhine have attacked and destroyed villages, forcing almost 150,000 Rohingya into camps. Since then, an estimated 120,000 have run a gauntlet of stormy seas as well as abuse and extortion by traffickers to escape to Malaysia, where around 500,000 to 1 million Myanmar nationals have emigrated in recent decades.
“People do not have any freedom here,” said Myo Win, a Rohingya who spoke by phone to the NAR from Sittwe, the Rakhine regional state capital. “That is why they try to go to Malaysia.”
Thailand has invited officials from Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the U.S. and Vietnam to the meeting in Bangkok on May 29, which Gen. Prayuth called after his request for a regional summit was ignored.
Prayuth contends that Thailand is but a transit country for refugees seeking to reach Malaysia, effectively putting the blame on his neighbors.
Malaysia earlier this week said Myanmar should bear responsibility for its policies toward the Rohingya. This was strongly rejected by the Naypyitaw government.
“We can’t say yet if Myanmar will join [the meeting],” said Ye Htut, Myanmar’s minister for information. He said many of the “supposed refugees” come from Bangladesh, and Myanmar should not be blamed. The boat people, he continued, “say they are coming from Myanmar, but we can’t decide this until we can conduct a verification process.”
The Myanmar government claims that the crisis is not a refugee issue but an international human trafficking problem. “All these people are saying they come from Myanmar because it’s the best way to get assistance from the United Nations,” Ye Htut told the NAR. “You should not blame Myanmar based on this claim.”
Thailand earlier this year came under increased international scrutiny after successive exposes of slavery aboard Thai fishing vessels, typically involving migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia. Around 3 million Myanmar nationals are migrant workers in Thailand, which has long hosted a network of refugee camps along its frontier with Myanmar’s Kayin State, a longtime war zone.
The meeting will come ahead of the expected publication in June of the U.S. annual global trafficking survey, which last year put Thailand among the worst offenders. Successive Thai governments have ignored trafficking and enslavement, but the current military junta, approaching the one-year anniversary of its putsch, has lately sought to break up trafficking networks linking Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.
“They are making significant progress on identifying and weakening the Thailand-based section of the cross-border syndicate,” Steve Galster, executive director of Freeland, told the NAR. Freeland an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization that has assisted Thai police with its investigation into the trafficking networks.
Freeland described some of the tactics used by traffickers who take mostly Rohingya refugees to camps in Thailand’s south. Once there, the refugees are forced to call relatives and plead for $2,000 to $3,000, ransoms to ensure their onward passage to Malaysia.
Separately, Malaysian police have detained around 20 alleged traffickers, many of them Rohingya, according to Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project, a U.N. partner organization that monitors Rohingya migration around Southeast Asia.
Bangladesh has also arrested several alleged traffickers, and four were shot dead by police this month.
“It seems the Bangladeshis have a much tougher policy now than either Thailand or Malaysia,” Lewa told the NAR.
Additional reporting by Gwen Robinson in Yangon.