Glimmer of hope for Southeast Asia's migrants

Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to provide temporary shelter and assistance to thousands of migrants still stranded at sea in Southeast Asia, but they have stopped short of offering to find their boats and bring them ashore.

An estimated 7,000 migrants, the majority of them Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, have been adrift on the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait for over a week with dwindling supplies of food and water after being abandoned by their smugglers. Until today’s agreement, boats that had tried to come ashore in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia had been turned away and even towed back out to sea. 

Following emergency talks held in the Malaysian  capital, Kuala Lumpur today, Malaysia’s foreign minister Anifah Aman announced the two regional powers would provide humanitarian assistance and temporary refuge to the migrants. But he added that the offer was contingent on the international community providing financial assistance and resettling and repatriating the migrants within one year. He also called on other countries in the region to assist.

The Philippines, one of the few countries in the region that is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, indicated on Tuesday that it would be willing to accept some of the statement migrants. However, Thailand has not agreed to take any in, despite attending today’s talks. In a after the meeting, Thailand's foreign affairs minister did commit to end push backs of the migrant boats.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration both welcomed today’s agreement but stressed the urgent need to find the boats and bring the migrants ashore. 

“If they aren’t brought ashore, it’s all going to be for nothing,” commented IOM spokesperson, Joe Lowry.

The need for a search-and-rescue operation took on even greater urgency as conditions in the Andaman Sea worsened. Thailand’s meteorological department predicted that strong winds would produce waves of up to two metres on Wednesday.

Help may be at hand for some of the migrants as the Turkish navy offered one of its ships already in the region to help with search and rescue efforts. 

Over 400 migrants on one boat were rescued by fishermen and brought ashore to Indonesia’s Aceh Province on Wednesday morning. Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an NGO that monitors the movements of Rohingya refugees between Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, has been in phone contact with the people on the boat since last week and said that they had previously been pushed back out to sea by the Malaysian navy.

“They’re just now eating their first proper meal,” she told IRIN.

Commenting on today’s agreement, Lewa said: “It’s good news, but of course we have to see how it will be implemented.”

She pointed out that the statement does not mention the word “refugee”, but that the use of the term “resettlement” implied recognition of the fact that the Rohingya could not be sent back to Myanmar where they are a persecuted minority that has been denied citizenship and various other basic human rights.

See: All at sea: What lies behind Southeast Asia's migrant crisis?

Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia are signatories to the Refugee Convention but both countries are already host to thousands of Rohingya, many of whom have been waiting for resettlement by UNHCR for several years.

Aegile Fernandez, who heads up Malaysian NGO, Tenaganita, which works with migrants and refugees, pointed out that UNHCR in Malaysia is already cash-strapped and stretched beyond capacity. Asylum seekers often have to wait two years just for their first refugee status determination interviews. 

She questioned how the agency would be able to process the new arrivals for resettlement within one year.

The solution is not knocking on the doors of foreign countries asking them to take [the refugees] in. The solution is in Burma; they belong there.

“The solution is not knocking on the doors of foreign countries asking them to take [the refugees] in,” she told IRIN. “The solution is in Burma [Myanmar]; they belong there. We now have to work seriously to get them back so they can go home and start their lives again. That’s the best solution."

So far, the government of Myanmar has refused to be drawn in to the crisis, despite growing pressure from other countries in the region to address the root causes of the exodus of Rohingya. Its officials did not attend today’s meeting in Malaysia and have indicated they will not come to a regional gathering being organised by Thailand to discuss the issue on 29 May.

Thailand is also facing criticism for failing to join Indonesia and Malaysia in offering the stranded migrants shelter. 

“Let’s hope this failure of Thai leadership is temporary and that Bangkok recognizes that it should urgently revamp its stance and agree to save these desperate people on the high seas and provide them with humanitarian shelter and assistance ashore,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. 

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