London, UK (BBN)-Obscured by the uproar over migrant trafficking in the Mediterranean, the dire plight of tens of thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants fleeing Burma and Bangladesh by sea has passed largely unremarked by western politicians and media.
But this week’s callous move by Malaysian patrol ships to turn back two boats carrying about 600 people, many in critical physical condition, and similarly unconscionable, coordinated actions by Thailand and Indonesia may soon shift attention to one of the world’s other big migration crises, reports The Guardian.
After a government decision to close Malaysian ports, officials confirmed on Thursday that the two refugee boats had been intercepted off Langkawi and Penang islands, on Malaysia’s western littoral, and forced back out to sea.
It is believed one of these boats was later found drifting in Thai waters, where authorities have also made its occupants unwelcome.
According to a banner written in English, the boat mostly contained members of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
“About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water,” one migrant shouted in the Rohingya language, according to local reporters.
“We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia.”
Many young children were among the weak-looking passengers on the boat.
Aid workers estimate that up to 6,000 migrants may be at sea with nowhere to go, while the UN refugee agency says the deliberate refusal to help them and others could quickly lead to a “massive humanitarian disaster”.
Human rights groups say the migrants are at risk of starvation, dehydration and illness – and that their situation will only worsen while irresponsible regional governments, eschewing search-and-rescue operations, try instead to make them somebody’s else’s problem.
“The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia.
Amnesty International said it was “harrowing to think that hundreds of people are right now drifting, perilously close to dying, without food or water, and without even knowing where they are”.
Indonesia said this week it also had repulsed a vessel carrying about 400 migrants.
Its fate was not known. Prior to the latest action to turn away migrant boats, about 1,000 migrants landed on Langkawi this week and several hundred others reached Indonesia.
Like Thailand, Malaysia worries about the impact on its lucrative western tourist trade of unsightly humanitarian problems washing up on its shores.
But its concerns run deeper. It is already home to about 150,000 foreign migrants, about 45,000 of whom are Rohingya.
Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, deputy home affairs minister, said the source of the problem lay in political unstable and economically deprived Burma and Bangladesh.
“What do you expect us to do? We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.
“Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar [Burma] with the way they treat the Rohingya people … You talk about democracy, but don’t treat your citizens like trash, like criminals until they need to run away to our country … We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity,” he said.
Such statements appear disingenuous. Like the Obama administration, Asean, the south-east Asian regional grouping, has avoided confronting the military-dominated regime of Buddhist-majority Burma over its treatment of the country’s 1.3 million-strong Rohingya minority and other abuses.
The minority’s much-persecuted members lack citizenship and endure institutionalised discrimination.
Rohingya have limited access to education and healthcare and cannot move around freely.
In the past they have come under attack from the army and been chased from their homes and land by Buddhist extremists.
It is estimated that more than 120,000 Rohingya have fled in the past three years, despite Burma’s supposed, US-backed political liberalisation.
Mostly they have boarded ships, paying huge sums to human traffickers to be transported to transit camps in Thailand, where physical abuses, including rape and beatings, are rampant.
A recent crackdown by the Thai authorities on these camps appears to have exacerbated the crisis, with the traffickers’ boats now staying at sea and trying to offload refugees wherever they can.
Thailand’s foreign minister, Thanasak Patimaprakorn, said his government would not set up an official refugee shelter for the Rohingya but was willing to provide short-term humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, regional countries are due to meet on 29 May to discuss improved joint approaches to people-trafficking and smuggling.
The challenge facing them is both formidable and urgent.
Despite the risk of fleeing by sea, the number of people attempting it has been rising sharply.
A UN refugee agency periodic report said 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers’ boats between January and March this year- almost double the number over the same period in 2014. Such startling statistics speak of a growing desperation.