BANGKOK – As representatives of 17 countries gathered in Bangkok to discuss an escalating refugee and migration crisis in Southeast Asia, a salutary reminder of the issues at stake came from Myanmar, which announced on Friday morning that it had found a boat containing 727 migrants off the country’s coast near the Irrawaddy delta.
Over the past month, boatloads of more than 4,000 people, a mix of Bangladeshis and Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, have landed or been rescued near the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand since Thailand and then Malaysia launched crackdowns on human trafficking networks operating in the region.
Traffickers have since tried to avoid docking, leaving about 2,600 migrants and refugees adrift at sea, according to United Nations estimates. Delegates at Friday’s Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, however, claimed there was no way of knowing the precise number of those stranded in boats on the Andaman Sea and in the the Bay of Bengal, but pledged to increase search and rescue efforts by air and by sea.
“It is very difficult to distinguish in such a vast expanse [of water] between vessels that might be carrying migrants and those that might be fishing vessels,” said Norachit Sinhaseni, Permanent Secretary at Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As well as discussing search and rescue for the so-called “boat people,” the meeting looked at ways to crack down on human trafficking and pledged to address the causes of the exodus from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
A communique issued at the close of the meeting listed “capacity building of local communities, providing economic incentives that create more local jobs, promoting trade and investment and development assistance to the at-risk areas,” among the factors to be addressed in order to prevent more refugees and migrants from fleeing.
“It is good that Myanmar made such some concessions to address some of the push factors behind the refugee flows,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker. But Santiago, who is president of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group, cautioned that there were political reasons why so many Rohingya continue to leave Myanmar, with 120,000 estimated to have fled since 2012.
“To address this crisis, the countries concerned need to push Myanmar to end the discrimination against the Rohingya,” Santiago told the Nikkei Asian Review.
However the meeting document made no mention of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, nor did it discuss whether the Rohingya, an oppressed minority numbering between 1 million and 1.3 million people, should be granted Myanmar citizenship.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Anne Richard, told media after the Bangkok conference that citizenship for Rohingya was discussed at the conference, but she did not go into detail.
Earlier, Norachit Sinhaseni said that the citizenship issue was not discussed, though acknowledged that some delegates at the afternoon meetings used the term “Rohingya,” against the wishes of the Myanmar government.
Earlier the Myanmar government had warned countries at the meeting not to mention the word “Rohingya,” a race it does not recognize, saying that the crisis was not Myanmar’s fault.
The message was blunt: “Finger-pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere,” said Htin Lin, the Myanmar representative at the meeting in Bangkok, in words that echoed those of an estimated 200-300 protesters who marched through Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon on May 27. The demonstrators said that the boat people were not from Myanmar and criticized the UN for blaming Myanmar for the maritime exodus.
For now, however, the numbers of people taking to the seas is likely to ease off, as the long rainy season hits Myanmar and Bangladesh, bringing with it the threat of cyclones and stormy seas. The change in weather should in theory give the concerned countries a five to six month window to deal with the causes of the crisis.
But Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader living in a Muslim ghetto near Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine state, believes that many Rohingya will once again try to reach Thailand and Malaysia when the rains stop around October.
“For sure, unless the government does something to make our lives easier, after the rainy season people will make for overseas,” Aung Win told the NAR.
Alicia de la Cour Venning, researcher at the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University in London, said that conditions for the Rohingya had worsened since Myanmar made the transition from military junta to civilian government in 2011.
“The Myanmar government has allowed hate speech, Islamophobia, and nationalism to flourish throughout the country, particularly in Rakhine state. It must end these practices immediately and act swiftly to hold those responsible for inciting and perpetrating violence accountable for their actions,” Venning told the NAR.
The UN mission in Myanmar last week praised the government for its efforts to improve the lives of Rohingya in Rakhine state, where the majority of them live, but the Rohingya were not included in Myanmar’s census — the details of which were published on May 29 in Naypyitaw.
Earlier this week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, criticized Myanmar’s new population control law, which opponents contend could be used against the Rohingya and other minorities. “At a time when thousands of Rohingya are already fleeing the country by boat, this sends precisely the wrong signal to these communities,” Lee said.
With elections scheduled for late 2015 in Myanmar, the country’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been reluctant to comment on the refugee crisis or on the living conditions faced by Rohingya — despite herself being a longtime political prisoner and Nobel laureate.
Around 90% of Myanmar’s 51 million people are thought to be Buddhist, and though protests such as that on Wednesday have been small, political leaders in Myanmar are likely sensitive to demands made by anti-Islamic mouthpieces such as Ashin Wirathu, the extremist Buddhist monk.
The Dalai Lama has called on Suu Kyi to speak up about the crisis, while Myanmar’s Catholic Cardinal Charles Maung Bo said in a recent interview that Suu Kyi’s reticence could be down to her concerns about losing Buddhist backing come the election.
“Wirathu and the Buddhist community would go against her, so much so that she seems afraid to make any statement,” said Bo.
Thailand, which hosted the meeting, has itself been criticized internationally over revelations not only about human trafficking of refugees and migrants, but also over slavery in its fishing industry.
Last year Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the U.S. government’s annual survey of human trafficking. The U.S. is scheduled to publish the 2015 report in coming weeks, prompting questions about Thailand’s motivations for its recent crackdown on the trafficking syndicates.
Norachit Sinhaseni told the NAR that Thailand was acting on humanitarian motives and that the government has a “zero tolerance” policy on human trafficking.
“We think we are doing a lot, but are not doing this in order to be upgraded [in the U.S. trafficking report].”
Bangladesh, the other source country for migrants taking to the seas, was not discussed as much as was Myanmar, it seemed, even though some estimates suggests that Bangladeshi migrants outnumber Rohingya among the 4,000 or so who have made it to shore during the recent crisis.
Yante Ismail, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in Malaysia, said, “we understand that the group [of 1,100 boat people who landed in Malaysia] includes some 700 persons from Bangladesh who may not need refugee protection and who, with the cooperation of their government, may be able to return home without delay.”
Softening the line from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque, who represented the country at the Bangkok meeting, told the NAR that “we agreed that we will try and tackle human trafficking, but we also agreed that we need to look at ways to make legal migration work as well.”
Norachit Sinhaseni said on Friday that repatriation was one of the options discussed for all boat people, including Rohingya, who unlike the Bangladeshis are more likely to be deemed refugees and therefore entitled not to be sent back to their country of origin.
“Our concern is for the relatively small number of Rohingya from Myanmar in the group, who are likely to need international protection and cannot be returned to Myanmar,” Yante Ismail told the NAR.
Humanitarian assistance is also needed for those refugees and migrants that made it to shore, with the U.S. on Friday offering an additional $3 million to support the work of the International Organization for Migration, which has been assisting the boat people.
In Aceh, a province on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, refugees were in bad shape after their long ordeal at sea. “They only had the clothes on their backs. Many had wounds from the fighting that had broken out at sea over food,” Nasruddin, Humanitarian Coordinator for The Geutanyoe Foundation, an Acehnese NGO which has been working with the survivors, told the NAR.Show