BRUSSELS (AP) — They may be separated by thousands of miles and vast expanses of sea but those people risking their lives in the Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea in southeast Asia seem to come from the same script.
The risk of clambering aboard a boat that may or may not be seaworthy is thought to be worth it, when weighed against the threats posed by conflict, persecution and poverty.
There can be no bigger judgment call.
Everyone in policymaking circles claims to care, but until recently few have shown any interest in actively helping out by offering sanctuary.
On the front-line, there is no room for conflicting signals.
“I broke down in tears as I watched them screaming, waving their hands and clothes,” said Razali Puteh, a fisherman who came to the rescue of 430 impoverished people Wednesday off the Indonesian coast. “I could not let them die, because they are also human beings. Just like me.”
But under the gaze of an animated media following the deaths of hundreds and the stories of heroism that have emerged in the face of despair, Europe and Asia are at least belatedly holding emergency talks and pledging short-term solutions.
Whatever unified response is presented, there are still big questions to grapple with. Who’s going to shelter and pay for those migrants taken in because they qualify for asylum, and how best to send back those who’ve traveled in search of jobs and do not qualify as refugees?
Here are some of the similarities, and important differences, between the crises off the European Union’s southern coasts and in southeast Asia.
ASIA: Most of the migrants are the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar while others are Bangladeshis fleeing poverty. The Rohingya are fleeing persecution and discrimination, which could qualify them for asylum or refugee status under international law. More than 3,000 have landed on southeast Asian shores over the past three weeks. And, according to aid groups, thousands more are stranded at sea.
EU: Migrants trying to reach Europe are mainly Syrians, Afghans and Somalis desperate to escape conflict or, in the case of many Eritreans, forced conscription. More than 80,000 migrants have reached European shores so far this year.
ASIA: Many of the Rohingya and Bangladeshis are travelling by boats operated by human traffickers through the Andaman Sea toward Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
EU: Migrants trying to reach the European Union are mainly traveling across the Mediterranean from Libya or Turkey into Italy, Greece and Malta. They are also channeled through by human traffickers. Many also travel over land through Turkey to Bulgaria and Greece.
ASIA: Thousands of Rohingya have been enticed by human traffickers and often held for ransom on board their ships, or in jungle camps in Thailand. But following a regional crackdown, the smugglers and captains have abandoned the ships and left their human cargo to fend for themselves at sea. Many refugees have died at sea.
EU: Criminal networks around the Mediterranean shift their center of operations in response to any coast guard crackdown. The EU has given the green light to a military operation to ruin their “business model” and destroy their boats, but experts say the effort will likely have little impact.
ASIA: No Southeast Asian country has launched any naval effort to save the stranded refugees. In some cases, Indonesian fishermen have rescued the hapless migrants and brought them ashore.
EU: The EU’s border agency has Operation Triton patrolling the Mediterranean. Its ships and planes rescue people, including near the Libyan coast, when an emergency call is made by migrants. But many civilian and commercial ships are saving people.
ASIA: Malaysia and Indonesia agreed Wednesday at an emergency meeting to “offer temporary shelter provided that the settlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community.” Thailand said it was already overburdened by refugees from Myanmar, but agreed to provide humanitarian assistance.
EU: Following a week in which almost 1,000 people were feared to have drowned, EU leaders called an emergency summit on April 23. They pledged extra ships, planes and other assets temporarily for Triton. The EU’s executive Commission launched a longer-term migration agenda, and will next week propose a temporary emergency mechanism for relocating people accepted as asylum seekers. Plans for a quota system are unpopular.
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