Friday, June 05, 2015

At Sea: Rohingya Refugees Abandoned to their Fate

Madhura Chakraborty, Calcutta Research Group. She is currently engaged in a research on forced migration with specific focus on Rohingya refugees in India

According to the International Organisation for Migration around eight thousand Rohingyas and Bangladeshis were stranded[i] in the Malacca Strait, being refused entry by the South East Asian nations of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The current crisis with boatloads of migrants abandoned in the sea comes in the wake of the discovery of mass graves in people smuggling
camps in Southern Thailand. As Thai authorities are cracking down on human smugglers, many
traffickers along with the crew have left these boats with hundreds of desperate asylum seekers
on board without food, water or any means of survival in the open sea.

In early May a series of mass graves and jungle camps were discovered in the Songkla province of Thailand near the Malaysian border. These were discovered to be the bodies of Rohingya migrants as well as Bangladeshis who were smuggled via sea in exchange for money by traffickers who promised to take them to Malaysia. Many were held at these camps and tortured while their relatives back home were extorted for money. Thai police start investigating the trafficking network and begins crackdowns which lead to the arrest of many trafficking ring leaders including a local municipal councillor in Thailand[ii]. On 6 May Bangkok Post ran a report predicting that these crackdowns would make the situations even worse: they quote Chris Lewa who said that "The raids have gone up in the last few months and the smugglers keep moving their camps, abandoning those who are too ill to leave with them,"[iii] .

In recent months traffickers have switched to keeping thousands of migrants on boats in international waters, rather than risk bringing them to Thailand.
"There is a huge bottleneck at sea," Ms Lewa said. "That is an even more dangerous situation."[iv]
The ‘blitz on people-smuggling trade’[v], as one report put it, came in the wake of pressure from European Union and USA regarding the way Thailand handles trafficking.

On 8 May, speaking from Geneva, the UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards[vi], voiced concerns over the increase in numbers of desperate boat migrants in the Bay of Bengal. He reported that despite the risks of these journey and extortion by smugglers 25,000 people of Rohingya and Bangladeshi origins boarded these boats in the first three months of 2015. This is double the numbers in the same period in 2014. Based on interviews with survivor UNHCR has drawn the following conclusion:

1.      The Modus operandi of the smugglers have changed--the victims are given passage for low cost or for free provided that they promise to repay the debt once they get jobs in Malaysia. In some cases there are cash incentives and promises of jobs. People are unaware that money will be extorted from them later in the journey and what started with being smuggled soon turns into forceful trafficking. There are accounts of children being abducted and forced on boats.
2.      An estimated 300 people have died due to starvation, dehydration and abuse in the boats in the first quarter of 2015
3.      The boat passengers disembark in southern Thailand and are taken on a day long arduous trip to jungle camps in the borders of Malaysia where they are held while their relatives are extorted for ransom. Rapes, torture and shootings are not uncommon.
4.      UNHCR notes that since last October it has been the practice of some traffickers to hold the people ransom at sea and once money is paid for them they are taken directly to Malaysia.
5.      UNHCR enjoined the countries in the region to work more closely together to counter the smuggling and trafficking of vulnerable people.

Reports of stranded boats refused entry by the countries of the region started making a splash on international media with photos and videos of desperate migrants calling out for help, around 13 May. For the next week more such boats were reported--abandoned by the crew and the smugglers, without food and water and any knowledge of navigation, the migrants were starving to death. The victims reported that their boats were forced back to the open sea at gunpoint by the Malaysian and Thai authorities[vii].

As more and reports and videos poured in there were discussions about the policy of ‘push back’ for refugees and migrants. Mathew Davies from Australia writes:

The Government's policy of "turning back the boats" has been one of its few political success stories - first in opposition when it bludgeoned the Gillard government with it, and then in power when it militarised the issue, authorised the tow-back of incoming boats and crafted elaborate offshore processing systems. The victims have remained largely faceless, stripped of their identity in the press and safely kept away from the cameras.
But in crafting this policy Australia weakened both the international refugee regime as a set of rules and norms that should shape how states deal with such refugee flows and helped along a regional trend that has questioned the international regime as never before.[viii]

Days later, in midst of the crisis Australian prime minister was quoted as having said:
"I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary...And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten." If that meant taking "more vigorous" action on the high seas or closer to Burma, so be it, he said[ix].

Online media platforms from the region  interviewed Yangon residents who all expressed sympathy for the victims[x]. With international pressure mounting with requests to intervene from UN and USA, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia convened an emergency meeting. While by the 20 May more than 3000 migrants had landed in Malaysia and Indonesia, the Globe and the Mail reported that an estimated 6000 still remain trapped[xi]. As the talks were being planned, Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein’s office announced that they would not participate in the meeting if the term ‘Rohingya’ was brought up[xii]. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said:
"As there are many of them, we cannot look after them properly. Where will we put them?...In the future, if many more of them come, it will cause a problem. They will steal the jobs and livelihoods of Thais."

Philippines was the first country that indicated its willingness to give refuge to the boat people[xiii] before the talks took place.

On 20 May urgent talks between the Foreign Ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia were held following which statements were issued by officials of the last two countries that they will "continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea". The shelter provided to the rescued migrants, however, will be of temporary nature conditional upon repatriation within a year[xiv]. To rescue the remaining migrants in sea Thailand offered a floating naval base but refused to take anyone but the seriously ill on shore[xv].

As Malaysia urged Myanmar to take responsibility, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing responded that ‘some “boat people” landing in Malaysia and Indonesia this month are likely pretending to be Rohingya Muslims to receive UN aid and that many had fled neighbouring Bangladesh[xvi] The Burmese authorities ‘accused governments of trying to divert their human smuggling and slavery problems by dumping the blame on Myanmar’[xvii]. On the other hand, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena, called the migrants, and those who want to migrate ‘mentally sick’ and accused them of tarnishing the country’s image[xviii].

On 26 May yet more jungle camps and mass graves were discovered in Wang Kelian in Malaysia in the border of Thailand. Currently bodies are being exhumed and twelve police officers have been arrested in this connection.

The number of jungle camps, offshore boat internments and mass graves give an estimate of the scale of the problem and the consistent refusal of the Myanmarese and Bangladesh to deny that they had any part in it does nothing but exacerbate the situation. Many have drawn comparison with S.S. St. Louis full of German Jews were refused asylum in USA and had to return to Germany where many died in the ensuing Holocaust[xix]. The Rohingyas, as the world watches, Nikolas Kristof writes for New York Times, are in the same predicament. And countries who have resumed ties and lent their support to the democratic process in Myanmar should put pressure for them to stop the discrimination and massacre of Rohingyas.

[xiv] latin;             mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";          mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

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