BANGKOK (AP) — The waters off some of Southeast Asia’s most pristine beaches are the focal point of a regional humanitarian crisis. Yet nobody is rushing to solve it.
More than 1,600 migrants and refugees have landed on the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week and thousands more are believed to have been abandoned at sea, floating on boats with little or no food after traffickers literally jumped ship fearing a crackdown.
These aren’t just any migrants; they are the pariahs of Asia. Many are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar along with some Bangladeshis.
By some estimates there are still 6,000 out at sea, but no country appears willing to take them in.
A look at the role of nations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere:
The crisis stems from Myanmar’s decades-long persecution of its 1.3 million Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are denied citizenship by law, meaning they are effectively stateless. Rohingya have endured violence at the hands of the military and extremist Buddhists, who in the last three years chased tens of thousands of people from their homes in the western state of Rakhine.
The Rohingya have limited access to education and medical care. They cannot move around or practice their religion freely. The government refuses to recognize them, even by name, saying they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh even though many of their families arrived generations ago.
The Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar by boat for years, but threats of deportations and lingering questions about citizenship have sparked one of the biggest exoduses the region has seen. Since mid-2012, an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled aboard ships, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Even two Muslim-majority countries willing to quietly accept them in the past are now pushing them away.
Thailand has been at the center of Southeast Asia’s human trafficking industry for years. Syndicates have used the country as a transit stop to offload migrants at hidden jungle camps before moving them onto third countries, including neighboring Malaysia. The industry thrived thanks to corrupt officials who turned a blind eye for pay.
But on May 1, things started to change. Thai authorities found more than 30 corpses buried at the traffickers’ abandoned jungle camps bordering Malaysia and launched the crackdown. A flurry of arrests sounded an alarm to traffickers, who promptly abandoned their ships and left their human cargoes at sea without fuel, food and clean water.
Thailand says it cannot solve the problem alone. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated Tuesday what has become his mantra: “Thailand is a transit country. Their destination is not Thailand, so this has to be solved by other countries.” Thailand will host a one-day meeting on “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean” with representatives from 15 affected countries — but not until the end of May.
Boats with nearly 600 Rohingya and Bangladeshis washed ashore on Sunday in Aceh, in western Indonesia, and those on board were given medical care and shelter. But a day later, the Indonesian navy stopped another boat from entering the county’s waters. It turned back the boat, crammed with hundreds of hungry migrants, saying it gave the passengers food, water and directions to Malaysia — their original destination.
In the past, Indonesia has been fairly welcoming to Rohingya who have reached the country, many of them by accident after their boats failed to land in Malaysia. Many Indonesians in the mostly Muslim country have sympathized with their plight, staging protests to condemn Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. The former president and foreign minister also openly pushed the Myanmar government to stop discriminating against the Rohingya.
More than 1,000 migrants came ashore on Malaysia’s Langkawi Island in recent days, but the country has bluntly said it will turn away any more of the crowded vessels unless they are sinking.
“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said Tuesday. In a policy that appears to echo Indonesia’s, he said that boats deemed seaworthy would be given provisions and sent away. If the boat is sinking, they would rescue it, he said.
Although the Rohingya are Muslims, the overwhelmingly Muslim countries of Indonesia and Malaysia appear to be putting their national interests ahead of religious solidarity with actions that send the message — it is not in their interest to welcome this potentially massive wave of boat people.
Malaysia is host to more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Myanmar. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingyas, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet twice a year with the aim of increasing cooperation and improving the lives of their citizens but critics say the group’s biggest flaw is that it never tackles contentious issues. ASEAN’s bedrock principle is not interfering in each other’s internal affairs — a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence. When Myanmar held the group’s rotating chairmanship in 2014 it blocked any discussion of the Rohingya issue, and did so again when ASEAN leaders met last month in Langkawi, which is ironically the location where some of the ships washed ashore this week.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said Thursday it is “extremely alarmed” at reports that Indonesia and Malaysia are pushing boats back to sea. Volker Turk, the agency’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said that “instead of competing to avoid responsibility” the governments of Southeast Asia should approach the crisis as an urgent matter of regional concern. The UNHCR has urged countries to prioritize saving lives and then figure out government policy. The agency itself has no mandate to carry out its own rescue mission but is working with governments and agencies “to channel information to the right people who can do something about it,” said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman in Bangkok.
The U.S. has been a key international player in pushing for an end to the region’s trafficking problems. U.S. Embassy of Thailand spokeswoman Melissa Sweeney said Wednesday that Washington was “following the situation closely” and was “concerned” by reports of thousands of stranded migrants who may need help. American officials are in contact with affected governments and U.N. agencies, Sweeney said, without elaborating.
Last June, the U.S. blacklisted Thailand and Malaysia for failing to meet minimum requirements in fighting human trafficking. It downgraded the two countries to the lowest level –“tier 3” — in the annual U.S. rankings of governments’ anti-trafficking efforts. Its new report is due out this June.
Associated Press Writers Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, and Margie Mason in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
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