Friday, August 18, 2017

Malaysia and Indonesia pledge to help migrants stranded at sea

Malaysia and Indonesia said yesterday they would offer temporary shelter to 7000 refugees, migrants and trafficking victims – many from Myanmar – who have been stuck at sea for weeks in dire conditions.

Acehnese fishermen (left) help transfer Rohingya from their boat off the coast of Aceh province yesterday. Photo: AFPAcehnese fishermen (left) help transfer Rohingya from their boat off the coast of Aceh province yesterday. Photo: AFP

The move is the first breakthrough in a humanitarian crisis and diplomatic stand-off, which has left thousands of lives at risk after a recent clampdown in Thailand closed down usual trafficking routes from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Neighbouring countries also refused to allow boats to land, pushing their starving and sick passengers to and fro between international waters, in what has been condemned as playing “maritime ping-pong” with people’s lives.

“What we have clearly stated is that we will take in only those who are on the high sea. But under no other circumstances would we be expected to take each one of them if there is an influx of others,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters.

Thailand, which also attended the meeting between the three countries in Kuala Lumpur, has apparently stuck by its policy that it will offer supplies to people stuck on boats, but those who land in Thailand will be charged under immigration laws.

Temporary shelters are to be set up in Malaysian and Indonesia, but not in Thailand. International assistance will be sought in resettling or repatriating the migrants.

The decision follows a joint statement by the UN – which has described the adrift vessels as floating coffins – and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on May 19. The statement detailed the horrific conditions being faced by those on board ships, including rape, other violence and starvation, and called on countries in the region to desist from pushing boats back and allow people to land safely without being detained.

The UN had estimated 8000 people were on board ships in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

Malaysian intelligence has estimated that number to now be about 7000, according to Mr Anifah.

Around 3000 people made it to land, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, in recent days, but most boats have been pushed back out to sea when attempting to enter those countries’ waters.

“The towing and shooing [away of boats] is not going to happen anymore,” the Malaysian minister said.

He added, “We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done within one year by the international community.”

According to the joint statement, “The international community will be responsible in providing Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand with necessary support, particularly financial assistance, to enable them to provide temporary shelter and humanitarian assistance to the irregular migrants currently at risk.”

The crisis has been complicated by the fact the ships are carrying both Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar, who are likely to be considered asylum seekers, alongside economic migrants from Bangladesh.

While Myanmar authorities on May 19 indicated they would be willing to take back those people who could “prove” they were Myanmar, it is unlikely most Rohingya – who are officially referred to in Myanmar as Bengalis – will be able to meet the government’s criteria.

The UNHCR welcomed the move by Malaysian and Indonesia as “an important initial step in the search for solutions to this issues, and vital for the purpose of saving lives”.

However, the UN refugee agency stressed the urgent need “for people to be brought ashore without delay”.

“UNHCR agrees with the ministers that further action will be needed. This includes addressing root causes. It will need to take into account looking properly at the needs of those in need of international protection,” it said.

Rights organisations also welcomed the move.

Joe Lowry, spokesperson for the IOM, said the decision by Malaysia and Indonesia was “brave and timely”. “They have to get these people ashore. We can help them get them back on their feet and help them resettle to third countries.”

However some have criticised Thailand for failing to offer shelter to those at sea.

The Myanmar Times yesterday witnessed a large navy boat off the shore of Koh Lipe apparently waiting to prevent boats from landing.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said, “Today’s foreign ministers meeting should mark the end of the region’s push-back policies against Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people. But it’s disturbing that just when Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to at least provide temporary shelter for boat people Thailand was missing in action.”

He added, “Let’s hope that this failure of Thai leadership is temporary and Bangkok recognises that it should urgently revamp its stance and join with Indonesia and Malaysia to save these people on the high seas and provided them with humanitarian shelter and assistance ashore.”

Earlier yesterday a boat that had been missing since being pushed out of Thai and Malaysian waters on May 16 was rescued off Indonesia by local fishermen.

Witnesses said 433 people, including about 70 children and a similar number of women, had been taken ashore from the boat, which had been sent to and fro between different countries’ waters for weeks.

On May 16 The Myanmar Times witnessed passengers on board crying and pleading as the Thai Navy towed it back out to sea for the second time in three days.

“The condition [of those rescued] is very weak. Many are sick. They told me that some of their friends died of starvation,” Teuku Nyak Idrus, a fisherman involved in the rescue, told AFP.