Saturday, 16 May 2015

Rohingya boat people crisis

Shanmugam: ASEAN must address roots of Rohingya issue
He says suffering of refugees is terrible, but there is an even more serious problem
Singapore to offer S$267,000 to support countries providing help to Rohingyas
By Pearl Lee, The Sunday Times, 24 May 2015

ASEAN countries have to work together to tackle the Rohingya refugee issue, said Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

But it is not just a matter of trying to help the boat people, he stressed, but also of dealing with the root problems, including the criminal elements who traffic the refugees.

He added that the annual East Asia Summit (EAS), which involves 18 countries including the US and Russia, is a good platform for collective initiatives to be discussed.

South-east Asia is currently battling an exodus of boat people fleeing persecution and poverty, with up to 7,000 vulnerable migrants thought to be stranded, many of them at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers.

Many are Muslim Rohingya refugees from the western Rakhine state in Myanmar, where they are not recognised as citizens and instead referred to as "Bengalis" or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Some are Bangladeshis escaping grinding poverty back home.

Last Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia offered to provide temporary shelter to the migrants. The two countries, along with Thailand, also called on the international community to contribute the support needed to address the Rohingya issue.

Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam announced that Singapore will offer an initial US$200,000 (S$267,000) towards relief efforts. The money will be disbursed through ASEAN.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that Singapore may offer more help if there are specific requests.

The minister described the suffering faced by the refugees as "terrible". "From a humanitarian point of view, we need to come together and try and see what needs to be done," he told reporters at Changi Airport before leaving for New Zealand, which is marking the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with Singapore.

"This has got to be seen as an ASEAN-EAS initiative. And we would like more countries to come together to see how we can deal with the problem."

More than 3,500 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh since a Thai crackdown early this month on human trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.

But the more fundamental issue, said Mr Shanmugam, is to deal with the conditions forcing the Rohingya to leave, and the criminal organisations involved in their trafficking.

"That is an even more serious problem. If we don't deal with that, and just deal with trying to help people already in the boats and try and get them into shelter, there will be an endless stream (of migrants) and none of us will be able to cope with that."

Myanmar has faced increasing international pressure to stem the deluge from its shores and deliver urgent humanitarian relief to those still trapped at sea as fears over their safety grow at a time when the dry winter months are about to give way to the regional monsoon.

Last Friday, the country's navy said it had carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat. Myanmar officials said yesterday that all 208 men are from Bangladesh and will be deported there.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said finding and saving the lives of those migrants should be a "top priority". Speaking during a visit to Hanoi yesterday, he called on regional nations to tackle the "root causes" of the current exodus at an upcoming conference in Thailand later this month, reported Agence France-Presse.

"But when people are drifting on the sea, how we can search and rescue them and provide life-saving humanitarian assistance, that is a top priority at this time," he said.

Migrant crisis: Mass graves found in Malaysia
They are said to hold 'hundreds' of bodies of Bangladeshis and Rohingya
The Straits Times, 25 May 2015

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia said yesterday that it had found mass graves believed to contain the bodies of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants in the border town of Padang Besar in Perlis state.

Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, who confirmed the news, is expected to hold a press conference today to throw more light on the grisly discovery.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying the graves were found near suspected detention camps run by people traffickers.

"But we don't know how many there are. We are probably going to find more bodies," he said.

While The Star report gave few details, the Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia, citing an unnamed source, said about

30 mass graves had been found containing "hundreds of skeletons".

The Star, also quoting sources, said the graves were "believed to contain nearly 100 Rohingya migrants". Police and forensic teams had been at the scene since last Friday, it added.

Early this month, Thai police found secret human-trafficking jungle camps on their side of the border and dozens of shallow graves. The Thai authorities then launched a crackdown on human trafficking, which appears to have thrown regional trafficking routes into chaos.

Malaysia's Home Ministry had previously denied there were holding camps and mass graves on its side of the border with Thailand.

"I am shocked!" Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid was quoted as saying by The Star. He added that some of the camps might have been there for as long as five years and Malaysian citizens were suspected to have been involved.

Many migrants had previously tried to enter Malaysia, their favoured destination, via its land border with Thailand.

With traffickers apparently now abandoning their human cargo at sea, boats filled with hundreds of starving migrants from Myanmar and Bangla-desh have sought desperately to land in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, which turned them away.

But Malaysia and Indonesia, in a policy U-turn, announced last week that they would accept boat people for one year, or until they could be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

More than 1.3 million Muslim Rohingya live in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. Many flee the country to escape discriminatory treatment and persecution from the Buddhist majority.

Myanmar insists the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies citizenship to most of them.

Most of the Bangladeshis are economic migrants seeking to escape poverty at home.

More than 7,000 boat people are thought to be still at sea, with perilous summer monsoon weather due to arrive.

Meanwhile, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday warned that Bangladeshis who try to move to other countries illegally would be punished alongside the middlemen.

"They are tainting the image of the country along with pushing their life into danger," she was quoted as saying by the state-run BSS news agency.


Indonesia, Malaysia to take in 7,000 boat people
But they must be resettled in a year, and offer limited to those adrift now
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 21 May 2015

INDONESIA and Malaysia moved yesterday to end the humanitarian crisis in the Andaman Sea by agreeing to allow an estimated 7,000 boat people to come ashore, but on the condition that they be resettled or repatriated within a year.

This came as Myanmar said it was "ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea", according to state media, climbing down from a hardline stance of refusing to accept any blame for the flight of the Rohingya.

Speaking after a four-hour meeting with his Indonesian and Thai counterparts, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman also stressed that the offer of "temporary shelter" was limited to those now adrift along the three countries' maritime borders and that "under no circumstances" would it be extended to "an influx" of other illegals.

Reading out a joint statement by the three neighbours, he said no specific locations for shelters had been agreed on. But he called on the rest of the world to provide the necessary support, "particularly financial assistance", for "humanitarian assistance to the irregular migrants currently at risk".

"Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea. We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter, provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," said Datuk Seri Anifah at a press conference with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi.

The migrants, mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims fleeing civil strife in Myanmar as well as some Bangladeshi nationals, have been left in dire straits for weeks after human traffickers abandoned them following Thailand's crackdown on people-smuggling camps.

An initial group of 1,100 had been allowed to land on Malaysia's resort island of Langkawi on May 10, while another 2,000 have arrived in Aceh, Indonesia, since last week, including more than 400 yesterday.

But the countries have turned away other boats, triggering mounting international condemnation as starving migrants sought to reach their shores.

The talks in Malaysia included Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn but he did not attend the news conference.

Mr Anifah explained that Thailand could not offer to house the migrants temporarily as it had to check first if such a move complied with domestic law.

But he warned that the offer to shelter the 7,000 stuck at sea should not be considered a standing arrangement. "In no way, under no circumstances, in an influx of other illegal immigrants are we expected to take in each and every one of them," he said.

Ms Retno was headed directly to Yangon yesterday for a pre-arranged bilateral meeting while Mr Anifah, whose nation chairs Asean this year, said he was also seeking to meet his Myanmar counterpart.

United States Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quoted by Reuters as saying in Jakarta yesterday that "ultimately (Myanmar) must take steps to address the root causes that drove these people (to sea) and we need long-term sustainable solutions, development, protection of basic human rights". He is due to visit Myanmar today to discuss the unfolding crisis with its government.

Malaysia to hold 3-nation talks over migrant crisis
But Kuala Lumpur unable to lock in crucial meeting with Myanmar
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 18 May 2015

MALAYSIA will hold talks with Indonesia and Thailand this week as it seeks a solution to the crisis in the three countries' shared maritime border, where thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshis are languishing in boats out at sea.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said yesterday that he would discuss with his Indonesian and Thai counterparts ways to end what the United Nations has warned could result in a massive humanitarian crisis. He was speaking to reporters after meeting Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu.

As many as 8,000 boat people, mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar but also some Bangladeshis, are adrift at sea after they were turned away by countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Many of them had been abandoned by people smugglers spooked by Thailand's ongoing crackdown on human trafficking.

An initial group of 1,100 migrants had been allowed to land on Malaysia's resort island of Langkawi on May 10, while another 1,400 landed last week in Aceh, Indonesia. The BBC reported yesterday that about 100 people had died after a fight broke out over food on board a boat that landed in Aceh last Friday.

Crucially, Malaysia - this year's chair of the 10-member Asean - has been unable to lock in an appointment with Myanmar to address the stream of Rohingya refugees fleeing poverty and discrimination - sometimes violent - in the latter's Rakhine state.

Datuk Seri Anifah was quoted as saying by The New Straits Times that Malaysia was looking for a solution and "currently giving humanitarian assistance... but I have already stated we cannot afford to accept more of them as a huge number already exist here, and so far no country wants to settle them".

"I hope Myanmar will sit with us to find solutions before we take it to the international level. If necessary, we will call for an emergency Asean meeting as suggested by the Prime Minister (Najib Razak)," The Star newspaper quoted him as saying.

A Foreign Ministry official told The Straits Times that Malaysia would hold tripartite talks with Indonesia and Thailand's foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

"Myanmar agreed (to a meeting) but (we are) not sure where or when yet," the official said.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin also called on Myanmar to take responsibility to solve its refugee problem internally. "We do not want to give the wrong signal to this group. If they are being treated accordingly, we are worried that thousands more will land on our shores. Eventually, the burden will be borne by Asean countries neighbouring Myanmar," he was quoted by the Bernama news agency as saying yesterday.

Mr Anifah also said Mr Abul Hassan explained that the Rohingyas - 50,000 of whom are already seeking refuge in Malaysia - are not considered Bangladesh's citizens despite Myanmar insisting that they had migrated illegally from the country.

However, as some of those who landed in Langkawi were reported to be from Bangladesh, Mr Abul Hassan has given his assurance of cooperation with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to resolve the issue.

Rohingya exodus not solely our problem: Myanmar
It says it may not attend meeting called by Thailand to tackle issue
By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok, The Straits Times, 16 May 2015

MYANMAR said it cannot be held solely responsible for the mass exodus of mainly Rohingya boat people and may not attend the May 29 meeting Thailand has called to tackle the humanitarian crisis.

"We do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing," presidential office director Zaw Htay was quoted as saying.

Early this month, the Thai authorities found the remains of several dozen people believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh buried in the jungles bordering Malaysia.

"The root cause (of the crisis) is increasing human trafficking. The problem of the migrant graves is not a Myanmar problem," he added

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday that Thailand cannot force Myanmar to attend the meeting of senior officials from 17 countries in the region. "Whoever wants to come can come. However, for those who don't, no one can force them. Every country has equal dignity," he was quoted by The Nation newspaper as saying.

Calls have been mounting for Myanmar to acknowledge responsibility, and for countries in the region to allow the boat people to land, to prevent more deaths.

On Thursday, Rohingya on a boat off Thailand said as many as 10 on the squalid overcrowded vessel holding more than 300 people had died and their bodies had been jettisoned overboard, after the crew abandoned the boat fearing Thailand's ongoing crackdown on smuggling gangs. Many more in other boats are feared to have died from starvation and sickness.

The boat people, mostly Rohingya, are from Myanmar's Rakhine state and Teknaf in neighbouring Bangladesh, both of them poverty-stricken areas.

Yesterday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon expressed alarm that some countries were turning these people away.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was concerned about the plight of the migrants, calling it "an issue of international and regional importance".

"We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis," he said in a statement.

Activists tracking the migration believe there may be upwards of 8,000 boat people still at sea. Malaysia this week dropped its normally accommodating attitude and said it would push back migrant ships. Indonesia has also said it will not allow the migrants to land. Thailand said it will treat them as illegal immigrants and give them only temporary shelter.

In a Facebook post, Mr Zaw Htay said that "Malaysia and Thailand should enforce the law, and investigate and arrest people who killed the victims or who are trafficking these Bengali. Instead... they point to our country."

Myanmar regards the Rohingya as historically recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though many have been in Rakhine state for generations.

Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey told The Straits Times it is "an intractable problem".

"It is clear that the solution to this problem lies in the countries of origin - Myanmar and Bangladesh. But this does not allow the destination countries to absolve themselves of the moral responsibility to act now to save lives at sea," he said.

Said Malaysia's former foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar, who is Organisation of Islamic Cooperation special envoy to Myanmar: "It's not about pointing fingers, it's about acknowledging the problem. There is no way we can keep sweeping this under the carpet. Denying it is not the answer."

Refugee issue: KL urges end to Myanmar 'oppression'
Malaysia turns away migrant boats as UN warns of humanitarian crisis
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent, In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 15 May 2015

MALAYSIA has turned away two boats with up to 800 Rohingya Muslims, insisting that Myanmar must end its oppression of this minority group.

With 1,158 refugees, mainly Rohingyas from Myanmar but some from Bangladesh as well, landing in Langkawi on Sunday and an estimated 6,000 more still drifting at sea, Malaysia insisted yesterday that the illegal migrants must be sent back home, as it stepped up patrols on its north-western coast.

"We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They... cannot be so oppressive," Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

He also told Reuters that Myanmar "is not at war", so "if there is nothing wrong with the ship, they should sail back to their own country".

The Rohingyas - many of whom are stateless - have been fleeing civil strife in the Rakhine region of Myanmar in the wake of conflicts with the Buddhist majority. Malaysia's stance has been criticised by human rights groups and the United Nations, which has warned that the situation could develop into a massive humanitarian crisis.

The UN refugee agency in Malaysia told The Straits Times the 1,158 asylum seekers have been moved to detention centres in Kedah. They hope to join more than 150,000 predominantly Myanmar refugees already registered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These include more than 45,000 Rohingyas, one of the largest groups outside their home country.

These refugees have no access to legal work but often work informally in sectors such as construction and plantations and are vulnerable to exploitation because of their uncertain legal status.

The sudden deluge of refugees trying to enter Malaysia from Myanmar and Bangladesh comes on the back of a crackdown on human trafficking camps along the border with Thailand. The smugglers are believed to have abandoned the ships bearing the migrants - some of whom have already perished at sea as Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian authorities refuse to welcome them.

Malaysia's coast guard has also raised its watch and included air patrols to prevent "any illegal intrusion", First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee told AFP. "We have doubled up our assets and manpower."

Villager Mohd Ridzuan Musa, 20, said one of the immigrants who landed on Sunday night told him that they had no choice but to jump into chest-deep water and wade to the shores of Langkawi if they did not want to be shot dead.

"The vessel captain asked them to jump, saying that he had a gun and would shoot them. A small boat then came to pick the captain up and it sped off," The Star quoted him as saying.

A local Rohingya rights group has called on ASEAN - which Malaysia chairs this year - to meet and find a solution or "two million Rohingyas will become boat people".

"Their lives are in danger. We ask Malaysia to actually find the boats in the ocean and save these human beings," Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia president Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani told The Straits Times.

"ASEAN must protect ASEAN people and allow us to live in ASEAN."

Tales of killings and people thrown overboard emerge
The Straits Times, 16 May 2015

LANGSA (Indonesia) - Harrowing tales emerged yesterday of people killing and throwing one another overboard after more than 700 migrants aboard two vessels were rescued and taken ashore in Aceh, in northern Sumatra.

Turned away from Malaysian waters and carrying 712 people, including 61 children, one vessel was sinking when it was sighted by Indonesian fishermen, who took survivors ashore, according to local reports. Forty-seven others from another vessel were rescued after they leapt into the water pleading for help.

The migrants, identified by police as Bangladeshis and Rohingya from Myanmar, had been at sea for two months.

Pictures showed the migrants, who were taken to a warehouse in Langsa after being taken ashore early yesterday by six fishing boats, looking exhausted, with many wearing just shorts and sarongs.

"They were killing each other, throwing people overboard," Mr Sunarya, the police chief in Langsa, told Agence France-Presse.

"Because (there) was overcapacity (on the boat), some people had to go and probably they were defending themselves," he added.

Mr Khairul Nova, a search- and-rescue agency official in Langsa, said the migrants began jumping from the listing boat when they saw the fishermen approaching, desperate to be rescued.

"Their condition is generally bad, some of them have died at sea," he said, without giving further details. "They were starving at sea, they fought among themselves."

He said that some had sustained injuries to their heads, arms and legs and had been taken to hospital. The boat was about 50km off the coast when it was spotted, Mr Sunarya said.

He said the group had entered Malaysian waters, the preferred destination of many migrants in the region, in several boats but were then caught by the Malaysian Navy, which herded them into one boat and pushed them towards Indonesian waters.

Despite the Indonesian authorities' previous pledge to turn back boats, Mr Sunarya said several government agencies were now involved in helping the rescued migrants.

"It is for humanitarian reasons. Whoever they are, we should help because the boat was sinking and there were children swimming (around it)," he added.

The new arrivals brought the total number of migrants sheltered in Aceh to more than 1,300.

Separately, the Thai Navy said it found a group of 106 people, mostly men but including 15 women and two children, on a small island off the coast of Phang Nga province.

"It's not clear how they ended up on the island," Phang Nga provincial governor Prayoon Rattanasenee was quoted as saying in The Bangkok Post. The group said they were Rohingya migrants from Myanmar. "We are in the process of identifying if they were victims of human trafficking."


Thailand may set up camps for Rohingya migrants
It is looking at using 2 unpopulated islands as temporary detention sites
By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok, The Straits Times, 15 May 2015

THAILAND may set up temporary camps for boat people, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told journalists yesterday, even as a decrepit boat with some 300 desperate Rohingya aboard was found drifting off Koh Lipe island, west of Satun province.

The rust-encrusted boat, located by the Thai Navy from information from fishing boats and occasional mobile phone calls from the people on board, had been abandoned by the crew, who had left it with a disabled engine about a week ago. It bore a banner with the English words "We are Myanmar Rohingya" painted on it.

With food and water running out, 10 people aboard the vessel had died and their bodies had been thrown overboard, the Rohingya people on board said. Some had resorted to drinking their own urine. Thai fishermen were giving them some food, reporters at the scene said.

Agence France-Presse news agency reported one of the Rohingya telling journalists: "We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia but we have not reached there yet."

The boat was packed with the Rohingya, many of them women and children, and looking visibly weak. Some cried and pleaded for food and water as reporters approached in a speedboat.

Late yesterday, a Thai Navy helicopter dropped food. Mr Jeff Labovitz, chief of mission in Thailand of the International Organisation for Migration, said the navy was willing to take the Rohingya off the boat but they had thus far refused, saying they wanted to go to Malaysia.

The Prime Minister has ordered an evaluation of two unpopulated islands off the west coast province of Ranong, which may be used to temporarily detain Rohingya migrants, reported The Nation daily, quoting sources.

In Bangkok, Premier Prayut told journalists that the migrants would be only temporarily detained. Thailand's policy was to ensure that illegal migrants were safely repatriated, he said.

Thailand was already holding some 100,000 Rohingya migrants, said the Premier who, with Thailand under pressure from the international community, has made tackling human trafficking a priority. But he insisted that other countries needed to help. "Everyone tries to make a transit point such as us take responsibility. Is this fair?" he said.

Thailand has called a 15-country senior officials' meeting for May 29, to find a way to deal with the flood of migrants. But activists fear any solutions may come too late to save the lives of hundreds, and possibly thousands, of the boat people as country after country turns them away.

More boats are thought to be in the area as thousands of Rohingya mostly from Myanmar, but with some Bangladeshis also among them, make their way to Malaysia - which had until this week been accommodating, but has now started pushing them back.

A crackdown on the human trafficking gangs that have been preying on the Rohingya when they arrive in Thailand en route to Malaysia has caused smugglers to abandon boats, leaving passengers stranded at sea, say activists tracking the seasonal migration which this year has reached unprecedented numbers.

Meanwhile, Thai police have identified Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, a former senior Satun province official, as a kingpin of the human trafficking racket. It was uncovered when the authorities found dozens of graves containing corpses and skeletons of migrants in jungle camps near the Malaysian border.

The latest find, on Tuesday, was a big camp with watchtowers and toilets that could have housed up to 1,000 people near the Malaysian border, less than 5km from a camp site where 26 bodies had been recovered earlier this month.

Indonesia 'will not turn away refugees'
By Zubaidah Nazeer, Indonesia Bureau Chief, In Jakarta, The Straits Times, 15 May 2015

THE Indonesian government will not turn away Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are being housed in a sports complex in Lhoksukon town in North Aceh regency, said Foreign Ministry officials.

So far, 582 migrants, including many ethnic Muslim Rohingya, have been given refuge in the overcrowded sports centre since local police found them stranded in boats in the waters off the regency over the weekend.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir yesterday said Indonesia did not sign a 1951 convention on refugees, but it will not turn them away.

"What Indonesia has done is given shelter and food to illegal migrants," he was quoted as saying by "What we do not do is force them back onto their boats and expel them from the country."

The regional administration, in cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), will look for uninhabited islands in the country to accommodate the migrants.

The hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers, mostly Muslims, were evacuated from boats after getting stranded in northern Aceh waters, after failing to land in Malaysia.

Dozens of Rohingya have sought political asylum in Medan, North Sumatra.

Earlier this week, Indonesian officials said they had pushed back one boat and directed it to Malaysia after providing the occupants with food and water.

Some of the boats that found their way to Indonesia had no choice but to stop after running out of fuel or getting lost.

"The (Myanmar) government has created this crisis with its continued persecution of the Rohingya," said Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have made things much worse with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of 'boat people' that put thousands of lives at risk.

"Other governments should urge the three governments to work together to rescue these desperate people and offer them humanitarian aid, help in processing claims, and resettlement places."

Mr Robertson said if South- east Asian nations are genuinely concerned about the mass flight of Rohingya from Myanmar, they should demand that Myanmar immediately end widespread rights abuses against the population.

"Ending discriminatory policies and ensuring full security so that Rohingya can safely and with dignity return to their homes in (Rakhine) State would be a good place to start," he said.

As facilities at the cramped centre in Lhoksukon town reached breaking point, with few toilets and poor ventilation, the local authorities began transferring migrants by bus on Wednesday afternoon to a larger complex in Kuala Cangkoi, a fishing town on the north coast. It was built as a tsunami evacuation centre and was not in use.

IOM deputy chief of mission Steve Hamilton told Agence France-Presse: "These people could be there for six, seven, eight or nine months before they get transferred somewhere else. There's nowhere to transfer them."

Bangladeshis resort to taking risky illegal route to Malaysia
By Porimol Palma, Belal Hossain Biplob And Shahtub Siddique Anik, Published The Straits Times, 15 May 2015

AS LEGAL channels for labour migration from Bangladesh have shrunk due to malpractices in the arrangements by both private agencies and the government, desperate jobseekers take the dangerous sea route to Malaysia.

Dreaming of high-paid jobs, they fall prey to a third party - transnational gangs pledging a secure sea voyage - and end up in a vicious web of abuses, including torture and captivity en route, forced labour or humiliating deportation.

Manpower export from Bangladesh to Malaysia has always been fraught with anomalies since it formally began in 1992. Corruption by some Bangladesh High Commission officials in Kuala Lumpur left as many as 50,000 workers illegal in 1996.

The burgeoning South-east Asian economy kept its doors closed to Bangladeshi workers for nearly a decade from 1997, except in 2000 when some 20,000 were granted visas.

The migration resumed in 2006 and continued till early 2009.

"Such repeated closing and opening of the Malaysian labour market was never the case for Nepal or Indonesia. But Bangladesh faced it mostly because of corruption," said Mr Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, coordinator of CARAM Asia, a regional network of organisations working on migration and health issues.

The rate was 84,000 taka when the private sector managed the recruitment in 2006 and early 2009. But studies found that workers were charged higher rates, by around 20,000 taka each, Mr Harun told The Daily Star over the phone from Kuala Lumpur.

Brokers, human resource managers of employers and outsourcing companies, and certain Malaysian officials are believed to have shared the extra money charged.

Another source of their moneymaking was having way more workers than required, showing fake demand.

In 2007 and 2008, over 40,000 Bangladeshi workers were sent but thousands of them remained unemployed or detained, and finally returned home empty-handed.

Mr Talat Mahmud, then labour counsellor of the Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, allegedly went through many documents without verifying job demands as he had good connections with the manpower brokers in Malaysia. He was called back to Dhaka following Kuala Lumpur's cancellation of 55,000 work visas in early 2009.

Malaysia's immigration director-general Wahid Md Don was found guilty of accepting a RM60,000 bribe for approval of 4,337 visa applications for Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia on July 10, 2008.

On Oct 30, 2013, the official was sentenced to six years in prison and fined RM300,000.

Now with the government-to-government arrangement in place, the flow of bribe money to brokers and officials has stopped, said a Bangladeshi recruiting agent who has Malaysian business links.

"They now look to Nepal, India or Vietnam for workers," he said, requesting anonymity.

The recruitment from those countries is done through the private sector, which in Bangladesh is plagued by irregularities due to lack of regulations and monitoring.

Malaysian employers too are turning away from Bangladesh. They often complain of the laid-back attitude of government officials and bureaucratic tangles in the government-to-government arrangement, said Mr Ruhul Amin, joint secretary-general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies.

The agencies had talks with the government several times about the issues but things hardly changed, he said.

"So, Bangladeshi jobseekers are going illegally," Mr Ruhul added, pointing to the country's surplus labour and limited job opportunities.

Dr Zaid Bakht, research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said that every year, some two million youths join the labour force in the country.

Some 60 per cent of them are absorbed into domestic and foreign labour markets.

The rest remain either unemployed or underemployed; many often become desperate to find jobs abroad, even illegally.

Due to various irregularities by private recruiting agencies, Saudi Arabia imposed restrictions on Bangladeshi workers in 2008 and the UAE in 2012. Kuwait stopped taking Bangladeshi workers in 2006.

The three countries were the biggest job market for Bangladeshis.

Before 2008, between 50,000 and 100,000 Bangladeshis migrated to Saudi Arabia for jobs every year. Over the past few years, the number has come down to 5,000 to 7,000.

In the case of the UAE, the number was about 15,000, which is now 10,000 to 12,000.

Many youths now want to try their luck in Malaysia, which has an annual labour shortage of some 10,000.

One of them is Mr Mohammad Yakub, 27, of Paikarchar in Narsingdi. He used to work at a power loom factory which often remained closed.

A broker promised him a safe voyage to Malaysia and a monthly income of 50,000 taka, and Mr Yakub decided to give it a try.

But en route, he landed in a Thai jungle.

Held captive and tortured, ransomed and released, and jailed, he finally returned home in March this year.

His family had to pay a ransom of 25,000 taka for his release.

"We had to sell half of our homestead and borrow the rest of the amount," said his mother, Ms Sahera Begum, sitting in her hut at Kundapadi village.

"Our son has become too weak. After his return, he got a job at a local factory, but he cannot work hard as before."

Mr Yakub at least managed to return home. To determine how many lives were lost in the attempts at migration requires further studies.


Thailand has ignored Rohingyas' misery for too long
By Supalak Ganjanakhundee, Published The Straits Times, 15 May 2015

THAI officials should not pretend they have just learnt that people calling themselves "Rohingya" have fled from somewhere via trafficking networks to Thailand.

The Thai authorities under the military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha are handling the issue of trafficking in Rohingya as if these unfortunate people have just arrived from Mars.

The government badly needs a comprehensive approach to cope with this complicated and tragic issue.

The origin of the Rohingya is still debatable, but this ethnic group has lived north-west of Myanmar, mostly in the state of Rakhine, for the entire memory of our generation.

Myanmar has refused to recognise them as national citizens and calls them illegal migrant Bengalis.

More than 1.5 million to two million Rohingyas were forced to leave their homes during Myanmar's independence in 1948, due to differences in race and religion, according to the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, a group of social activists who champion their rights.

However, two million are still living in Myanmar while hundreds of thousands are moving along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

A major exodus of Rohingyas has happened twice since Myanmar's independence: once in 1978 when the military regime of General Ne Win launched the Naga Min (Dragon King) operation to check "illegal migrants", and again in early 1990 after a military crackdown on democratic movement.

The current wave of Rohingya movement began without notice more than a decade ago when they sought better lives in South-east Asia.

Malaysia is their destination of choice but Thailand is the regional transit hub due to loose border control and corrupt officials.

The refugee movement came to public notice in early 2009, when some received brutal treatment from the Thai authorities (when vessels were allegedly pushed back to sea).

And problems in Rakhine State were exacerbated three years later when Muslim Rohingyas clashed with Buddhist Rakhines. The violence displaced more than 100,000 people who ended up in refugee camps.

With the emergence of human trafficking syndicates, it is estimated that more than 100,000 Rohingyas have managed to settle in South-east Asia.

Their adventures were not at all smooth.

Usually, they had to pay between US$90 (S$120) and US$370 in "boat fee" to board a vessel, but they could not get off unless another US$2,000 was paid, according to a United Nations report.

They were pressured, starved and beaten to extort payment from families and relatives to facilitate their travel. Those who had no relatives to pay for them told the UN they worked as labourers for smugglers for several months in order to secure their freedom.

Some were forced to work under hard conditions on fishery trawlers and farms to repay their debts from trafficking expenses. Others were held in brutal jungle camps in southern Thailand, pending payment.

It is too naive to say that Thai security officials knew nothing about these matters. Unless officials took bribes to allow them to continue their dangerous journey, they would be brutally deported and left to starve on the high seas.

Of more than 50 traffickers facing arrest warrants from Thai police, many are uniformed officials of many agencies.

But this could not stop the Rohingyas.

By the end of the monsoon season in October, Rohingyas sometimes mixed with Bangladeshis to begin their risky voyage in the Bay of Bengal to South-east Asia.

In the first quarter of this year, 25,000 people were estimated to have departed in irregular maritime movements from the Bay of Bengal.

The departure rate in the period was approximately double the departure rate reported in the first quarters of 2013 and last year, according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report.

More than 300 died at sea during the first quarter of this year, bringing the total to 620 since last October, the report said.

The ongoing Thai crackdown - aimed at pleasing the United States for the benefit of upgrading Thailand's status in the Trafficking in Persons report - might not always yield good results.

The International Organisation for Migration said that as many as 8,000 boat people could be stranded at sea in the Bay of Bengal as the smugglers are reluctant to land.

Thai officials arrested, prosecuted and deported dozens of them over the past weeks after launching the crackdown on traffickers. Their fates are unknown.


Singapore not in a position to accept refugees: MHA
Channel NewsAsia, 15 May 2015

Singapore will not be accepting refugees or people seeking political asylum, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Friday (May 15).

“As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin,” said an MHA spokesperson, in response to queries from Channel NewsAsia.

More than 700 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar arrived in Indonesia on Friday after fishermen rescued them from their sinking boat off Aceh province. Indonesian police said they were pushed away by the Malaysian navy to the border of Indonesian waters.

More than 1,000 migrants have also landed in Malaysia.

The Malaysian branch of the UN refugee agency UNHCR on Friday urged the regional governments to act urgently to help the migrants stranded at sea. Meanwhile, Indonesia said it will follow international regulation on illegal migrants in handling the refugees.

Singapore can't accept refugees: MHA
By Jasmine Osada, The Straits Times, 19 May 2015

AS MALAYSIA, Indonesia and Thailand plan for talks on the Rohingya migrant crisis, Singapore said it is unable to accept any refugees or those seeking political asylum.

"As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs yesterday, in response to questions from The Straits Times.

The position appears unchanged from that outlined in Parliament in 2009, when then Nominated MP Eunice Olsen askedfor the Government's response if the Rohingya tried to enter Singapore waters.

Replying, the late Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Balaji Sadasivan said that because of Singapore's limited land and natural resources, the Government had for decades been against accepting refugees. He said Singapore would assist such people by providing humanitarian assistance, so that they can depart for a third country.

Between 1975 and 1996, Singapore hosted some 32,000 Vietnamese refugees. They were allowed into Singapore only if a third country gave written guarantees of their removal within three months. The last 99 returned to Vietnam voluntarily in 1996.

Keep refugees out, but provide relief assistance

IT IS a pragmatic move by the Government, in its statement, to strongly discourage any possible attempts by refugees to gain entry into Singapore ("S'pore can't accept refugees: MHA"; yesterday).

We had very trying and unpleasant experiences in 1975, when we kept Vietnamese boat people from coming onto our shores in Operation Thunderstorm.

It was not an easy decision, as the humanitarian issues regarding refugees were, and still are, highly sensitive.

Then Defence Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, did right at the time, and the policy still stands - that as a small country, we cannot allow refugees to swarm into our limited land area.

There was, however, due consideration given when some third countries promised to take some of the refugees.

Singapore provided a refugee holding camp in Hawkins Road, in Sembawang.

Unfortunately, a number of Vietnamese refugees stayed in this camp for almost two decades, as the third countries did not live up to their promise of accepting them. 

Fortunately, at the end of 1996, with the stabilisation of the Vietnamese government, the last 99 of the boat people returned to their homeland.

We learnt a hard lesson from those who preached about morality and humanitarianism but who later conveniently forgot about their promise.

This refugee crisis has become a very serious problem in Europe and now in South-east Asia.

The dilemma being faced by European countries appears quite similar to the problems faced by Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. There are various pressure groups lobbying for humanitarian consideration for these refugees.

However, in the final analysis, it is these affected countries that will face serious difficulties, including financial upkeep and shelter of these refugees, social-cultural integration with the locals, and the possibility of extremist groups exploiting the situation as a conduit for terrorist activities. 

Singapore should be prepared to do whatever is necessary, just as what was done in Operation Thunderstorm: Keep the refugees out, but on humanitarian grounds, consider providing food, water, medicine and boat engine repairs, but no refugee holding camps on our small island.

Adrian Villanueva
ST Forum, 20 May 2015

Stopping boats the heart of the issue: Abbott
The Straits Times, 18 May 2015

SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said yesterday that putting a stop to people-smuggling boats was central to ending the wave of migrants fleeing to South-east Asia, adding that he would not criticise countries' efforts to turn back the vessels.

Mr Abbott, whose government has introduced tough measures to stop asylum-seeker boats, said he was "in no way critical of regional countries for the efforts that they make to stop the boats".

"Yes, we've always got to be humane and we've always got to be decent but, in the end, we have to stop the boats," he told reporters in Perth.

"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."

After coming into power in September 2013, Australia's conservative government introduced a military-led operation to turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers before they reach the island continent.

The boats are turned back to where they transited from, mostly Indonesia, or those on board are sent to offshore processing camps on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

They are blocked from resettling in Australia even if they are found to be genuine refugees.

The government has credited the controversial policy for the nation going nearly 18 months with virtually no asylum-seeker boat arrivals and no reported deaths at sea.

Human rights advocates, however, have slammed it for violating Australia's international obligations.

Before the policy was introduced, boats were arriving almost daily, with hundreds of people drowning en route.

"As long as the people-smugglers put those in search of a better life into leaky boats and send them out into the open sea, you will have deaths," Mr Abbott said.

"That's why the heart of this is stopping the boats."


Australia defends stance on boat people
The Straits Times, 23 May 2015

SYDNEY - Australia hit back at criticism of its response to thousands of migrants stranded at sea in South-east Asia, saying it was generous towards refugees in the region.

When asked whether Australia would offer to resettle the migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar's oppressed Rohingya minority, Prime Minister Tony Abbott replied on Thursday: "Nope, nope, nope."

The reaction led an Indonesian official to suggest that Australia was shirking its responsibilities under the United Nations Refugee Convention.

But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Australia's hardline policy, which includes refusing to resettle asylum seekers who arrive on boats and turning back vessels, had helped stop people risking their lives at sea.

Australia was a significant donor to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia, he said.

"The fact is we provide, by way of donor support, the largest amount of money to the IOM and to the UNHCR in Indonesia," Mr Dutton said. He added that the Australian government offers "significant support to the settlement of refugees in this country".

Australia currently takes in about 13,750 refugees under its humanitarian programme each year.

Mr Dutton said that with millions of people displaced around the world, Australia could not help everyone.

"We cannot be in a situation, having the most generous humanitarian programme in the world, to then... pretend cruelly to people that somehow we can take millions of people from regions around the world that would be displaced, we just can't do that," he said.

Mr Abbott stood by his earlier statement, saying yesterday that it would be "utterly irresponsible" to do anything that could encourage people to take to the sea in boats.


'Boat people' crisis a test for ASEAN
Relations between ASEAN member states coming under strain
By Nirmal Ghosh, The Straits Times, 18 May 2015

ENDEMIC poverty in the Rakhine state - the Cox's Bazar region on either side of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border where it meets the Bay of Bengal - afflicts local people across the board.

But activists say it is Myanmar's "one step forward, two steps back" policy in dealing with the long-running Rohingya issue in Rakhine that is driving the near-destitute minority Muslim people to leave in increasing numbers.

A humanitarian crisis has escalated in recent weeks, in which at least 8,000 boat people have been left adrift at sea and in deep distress, after having been turned back by countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

This presents a test for ASEAN, and will also try the goodwill of the international community, which uncorked a flood of aid and investment in Myanmar when it made the calibrated transition to a quasi-civilian government four years ago, after decades of stifling military rule.

Today, as images of thousands of desperate boat people are being beamed around the world, the goodwill of the international community could be wearing thin.

"The regular stream of bad news stories out of Myanmar in recent years, such as violence and displacement in Rakhine and anti-Muslim violence across the country, will have a negative impact on Myanmar's relations with the West," independent Yangon- based analyst Richard Horsey told The Straits Times in an e-mail.

Relations between ASEAN member states are also coming under strain.

In an uncharacteristically blunt statement by one ASEAN state about another, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said last week: "We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity."

Former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said in an interview: "Yes, Thai people may be involved (in human trafficking), but the point of origin (of the boat people) is in another country."

A Bangladeshi analyst, who spoke to The Straits Times from Dhaka but declined to be named, said: "The Myanmar government is to blame for this."

An angry Myanmar denied responsibility last Friday, saying the boat people were not all Rohingya Muslims. The government insists on referring to them as "Bengalis", and local Rakhine Buddhists see them as Muslims out to grab their land and Islamise the state.

Denials aside, the Rohingya issue lies at the core of the problem. More than 100,000 of them live in camps for the internally displaced in Rakhine state, and roughly twice that number in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district just across the border, where they are being put up in two official camps, with the rest living essentially in slums.

There, some have integrated into the community. But the area is impoverished, so locals are resentful as the Rohingyas compete with them for jobs and resources.

"Some of those (boat people) who get apprehended are Bangladeshi people who have had no choice but to take to the seas in the hope of a better life," the Bangladeshi analyst conceded.

"But for sure the huge majority is Rohingya. Sometimes when they get caught, they say they are Bangladeshi."

With Myanmar edging towards its first real general election in decades this year, Naypyitaw's angry response was a signal that hard political calculations come before the Rohingyas.

Last year, a pilot programme to verify the Rohingyas' status was conducted at a camp at Myebon in Rakhine state. But only 7 per cent of those screened were deemed citizens, naturalised or otherwise, said Ms Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a pressure group focusing on human rights.

Then, earlier this year, the government said all "white cards" would become invalid from March - in one stroke, it took away the rights of those Rohingyas for whom the sought-after white identity cards mean they are naturalised citizens and can vote. "Now they have no citizenship and no ID, and are on the verge of not existing at all. This is a push factor," Ms Stothard said in an interview.

The international community could reconsider its soft approach to the quasi-military regime.

Still, analysts say, Western powers in particular might not be willing to go so far as to alienate Myanmar and have it turn to China for support.

There are economic stakes as well. Foreign powers "don't want to lose a slice of the (Myanmar) pie", the Bangladeshi analyst said.

No single issue defines Myanmar's relationship with Western countries, Mr Horsey said. But it is essential that the economic plight of Muslims in Rakhine be alleviated, and that the people should be given some hope of a better future, including proper identification documents.

But few are optimistic on that front. "Not only will the crisis not go away, it shows every sign of growing," Yangon-based Dr Khin Zaw Win said in an e-mail. A former political prisoner, he now runs the Tampadipa Institute, a civil society organisation.

"The Rohingya issue presents a test for Myanmar as a democratic society, a Buddhist society and a humane society," he noted.

"As things stand, Myanmar is failing on all three counts."

An uncertain future for refugees in Malaysia
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent, In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 19 May 2015

AT A small community school for Rohingya refugees in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the 94 children are taught not just by Malaysian teachers, but also one of their own.

Ms Ferozah Abdul Rashid, 25, came to Malaysia just four years ago to join her siblings and father, trading in her life as a stateless minority in Myanmar for that of a refugee in Kuala Lumpur. And she already speaks enough Malay and English to teach the local syllabus.

"I have been interviewed to see if I can further my studies in America. I want to return to Myanmar, it is my home, but how can I when it doesn't accept us," she told The Straits Times in Malay.

More than 140,000 people from Myanmar who fled their homeland for Malaysia - a third of them stateless Rohingya escaping deadly civil strife, like Ms Ferozah - work and study informally in the hope of a better future.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 141,570 of the more than 152,000 documented refugees in Malaysia are from Myanmar, with 45,170 of them Rohingya. Other Myanmar ethnic minorities, such as the Chin, have also fled the country as civil war raged for decades between these groups and the central government.

The UN agency also estimates that another 30,000 refugees in Malaysia are undocumented, while the immigration department said more than half of the illegal immigrants under detention, or 6,936, are from Myanmar, with 4,531 being Rohingya.

While the Rohingya seek to settle in one of the region's richest economies, whose Muslim majority tend to be sympathetic to others of the same faith, the Malaysian government is not party to the 1951 UN convention on refugees and there are no provisions for these asylum seekers in terms of housing or jobs.

Instead, they mostly take up odd jobs, working as dishwashers, builders and plantation workers, often earning under RM1,000 (S$370) a month. Some depend on the generosity of locals, who offer them free or subsidised lodging and education.

Ms Ferozah teaches at a school run by the Malaysian Relief Agency (MRA). Last weekend, the school held a small fund-raising festival where children like Rahmat Bi Ramzah Ali, born 15 years ago in Malaysia, enjoyed ice cream and new clothes.

"My best language is Malay. I feel part Rohingya and part Malaysian but I don't have any wish to go to Myanmar as Malaysia is my home," said the girl, who is in Primary 5.

She and her seven siblings live with their parents, who are door-to-door book salesmen. Like many other Rohingya families, they live in peace with Malaysian neighbours.

"Even those born in Malaysia take a long time before they can go from refugee to permanent resident, never mind citizenship," said MRA president Abdul Razak Kechik.

But he added that the negative perception of Myanmar people held by some Malaysians - which has likely fuelled the government's refusal to take in more boat people after the first 1,100 landed a week ago - is at least partially self-inflicted.

"Some are involved in theft, burglary and even rape and murder, even though locals go a long way to help them. Some Rohingya sabotage their own people," he said.

At least 20 Myanmar nationals were killed in Penang late last year and the police believe the murderers were the victims' own countrymen.

The unwillingness of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia to accept an estimated 8,000 people still adrift in the Andaman Sea has left Ms Ferozah saddened. However, she puts the blame largely on the government of Myanmar President Thein Sein. "If the President accepts the Rohingya, then none of this would have happened," she said.

Malaysia cannot be soft on migrants
By Wong Chun Wai, Published The Straits Times, 19 May 2015

MALAYSIA has to be careful in sending the right message to the migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. If we are seen to be soft and seemingly ready to accommodate them, our shores will soon be filled with them.

Malaysia and Indonesia are preferred destinations because the perception is that both these countries are Muslim-majority and have shown sympathy for the Rohingya people in the past. And this is further accentuated by the presence of a huge foreign workforce in Malaysia, comprising both legal and illegal workers, that gives the impression that Malaysia is an attractive destination to eke out a living.

The recent events, where boatloads of these migrants suddenly made it into Malaysian territory, have made us more aware of the different ways through which these migrants have landed on our shores. First, it shows how porous our borders are. It is so easy for foreigners to enter our seas and our shores, with little prevention or detection by the authorities. That is, of course, nothing new to Malaysians, especially those in Sabah.

The Abu Sayyaf has long known how easy it is to come over to Malaysia, grab a few Malaysians and foreigners, and hold them for ransom. It is a lucrative business for these kidnappers who, amazingly, still think of themselves as freedom fighters in the name of religion. In reality, they are not even terrorists, but just plain criminals.

Much more brazen are recent reports of how the Thais involved in the syndicates, using fishing boats, had unloaded these migrants on our shores, treating Malaysia as a dumping ground. Who are these people who brought them to our shores - Thai fishermen, Thai army personnel or the Thai courier service? Again, how did they enter our coastal jurisdiction with such ease?

Unlike the Indonesians, who send these migrants off after giving them water and food, Malaysia has actually taken them into the detention centres, with no time frame as to when they will be asked to continue their journey. The Indonesians seem to have spun their story pretty well - they are saying these migrants do not really want to stay in Indonesia, that their destination is Malaysia.

Mr Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, reportedly said an Indonesian ship had given provisions to a migrant boat it encountered on patrol in the Strait of Malacca before the boat continued on its way to Malaysia, which, he said, was its intended destination. "The people on the boat did not want to go to Indonesia, but they asked for help, clean water and food," he said. "After the aid was given, they parted."

That's brilliant, Pak, and certainly very much in the spirit of Asean solidarity and the much touted brotherhood ties between our two countries. It was only later that the Indonesians took in about 1,400 immigrants in Aceh.

Let's face it, Malaysians are people with loads of sympathy and compassion. Then, there is the added dimension of religion. But we have to use our heads too, not just our hearts, in dealing with the increasing number of migrants coming to Malaysia.

We cannot afford to give the impression that we will take them in, even temporarily, because news will soon travel back home that they were welcomed in Malaysia.

Yes, it is painful to read news reports of overcrowded traffickers' boats with their human cargo, including women and children, but Malaysia is already overflowing with immigrants, many of whom are illegals.

Older Malaysians will recall that in May 1975, the first boatload of 47 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Malaysia from Vietnam. Pulau Bidong in Terengganu was used as a refugee island to house the boat people trickling in but, two years later, boats arriving from Vietnam became a near-daily occurrence.

It was reported that by January 1979, there were 18,000 Vietnamese on the island and, by June 1979, it was said to be the most heavily populated place on earth, with about 40,000 refugees crowded into a flat area hardly larger than a football field.

The Pulau Bidong camp was finally shut down in 1990 and the refugees were moved to Sungai Besi in Kuala Lumpur. It took Malaysia 20 years before the last of the 250,000 Vietnamese refugees finally left the country.

But compare the situation then to the estimated millions of registered and illegal foreign workers in Malaysia now. It would not be wrong to say that it has become a security issue. The majority of Malaysians are sick and tired of the huge influx of foreigners, mostly unskilled, into Malaysia.

It is reassuring that Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said that Malaysia cannot welcome them. He has rightly said that "if we continue to welcome them, then hundreds of thousands will come from Myanmar and Bangladesh". The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has so far registered over 35,000 Rohingya migrants in Malaysia, but most people believe the number is much higher.

Turning these migrants away would invite criticism by non-governmental organisations and activists, but no country has joined in the chorus of support because governments know they cannot simply accept them and, if they do so, it would be hugely unpopular with their electorate.

Despite the hypocritical criticism by the United States against Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, the US will surely not accept these Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.

In fact, the US appears reluctant to even provide direct help in search and rescue, with US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke saying "this is a regional issue, it needs a regional solution in short order". We will be quite happy to send these refugees to the US.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, has said that Malaysia will not tolerate any form of human trafficking, adding that the government would take the "necessary action" and that anyone found to be perpetrating this injustice and contravening Malaysian laws would be held accountable.

The source of the problem is Myanmar. Malaysia should exercise its authority as the chairman of Asean to deal with Myanmar for its persecution of the Rohingya minority, who are effectively stateless.

No one would leave his country in a rickety boat, gambling with his life, unless the situation is desperate. Worse, it is shocking to read of extremist Buddhist monks calling for the killing of these Rohingya people.

With the Malaysian and Thai authorities cracking down on the smuggling of these people via the jungles, the sea, which is more dangerous, has become the preferred route. But Malaysia should chart its course correctly, too, because it is one problem that it does not need.


Give dignity back to the Rohingya
They are not "homeless". They are not "boat people". They are a people with a culture, a history and a homeland, forced out of their abode by politics.
By Farish A. Noor, Published The Straits Times, 23 May 2015

TODAY the Asean region is confronted with the challenge of coping with Rohingya who have taken to the seas to seek a safer life elsewhere. At the same time, the European Union is forced to deal with the phenomenon of Africans fleeing their continent to seek a better life in Europe.

In both these cases, the refugees concerned have been portrayed as vulnerable, homeless people who present a challenge to other countries that have become the destinations for them.

For reasons that I will elaborate on, I find this depiction of the Other as the "vulnerable victim" problematic; and I would argue that at this critical juncture we need to seriously interrogate the very language that we use to describe and understand such crises.

Let us be honest from the start and call a spade a spade: The crises in North Africa and Myanmar are not natural disasters to begin with.

Even in cases where natural disasters have struck, I have been amazed by the resilience and fortitude shown by ordinary human beings who demonstrate the capacity to cope under extraordinary circumstances.

I recall, while working in Kashmir as part of the post-earthquake relief operation there in 2005, how a young couple in the devastated town of Muzaffarabad managed to hold their wedding ceremony in the midst of carnage and destruction.

Practically every family I met had lost at least one relative, and in one village every woman and child had been killed, leaving the men alone and destitute.

Yet in the midst of this loss and pain, a young couple could still proceed with their wedding - proof of the incredible strength of the human will and humankind's capacity to rise above disasters.

Upon my return to Europe, I was asked by my colleagues and students about what I saw and what I had learnt in Kashmir, and my reply was simply this: I learnt that human beings, in times of crisis, can rise to the level of the superhuman. The crisis in Kashmir was, however, a natural disaster, on a par with the tsunami of 2004. There was no one to blame for these disasters, as no agency was involved.

A natural or man-made disaster?

WHAT is happening now in South-east Asia and the Mediterranean is not a natural disaster though, but rather the result of political will and contestation that necessarily involve human agency, and thus entails the element of moral-political responsibility as well.

To describe the phenomenon of boat people - be they drifting across the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea - as a "disaster" suggests an inevitability to the situation that begs the question: Surely, thousands of people would not rush out to sea, braving hazardous conditions that imperil their lives, for the sheer sake of it?

But this is where a disconnect seems to have appeared: The developed countries in the West bemoan the fact that refugees from Africa are running to them, but have not asked why these people are running in the first place.

For the deteriorating security conditions in countries like Libya today are not the result of some natural disaster but rather the outcome of political intervention gone wrong, leading to crises that are political in nature.

The answer to the problem seems simple enough: If you do not want to have economic or political refugees rushing in your direction, perhaps it would be wise not to stir economic or political problems abroad in the first place.

Likewise, the phenomenon of Rohingya taking to the seas today is not the result of an earthquake or a tsunami, but rather the outcome of a political crisis that has been brewing for years now.

To describe the Rohingya as "homeless" obfuscates the fact that they have a home, or rather had a home, and that they have been forced to leave as a result of a domestic political crisis that likewise involves actors and agents who are local.

As long as we refer to such people as "homeless", we will perpetuate the notion that the Rohingya are a stateless community with no homeland of their own, and thus deny them their history, culture and identity as well.

Not an Asean problem

COMPOUNDING matters is the tendency to label this as an "Asean problem", as if all of South-east Asia was implicated in the humanitarian crisis that led to this situation, when the honest approach would be to identify the actors and agents who have been responsible for this state in the first place.

Some reports have bemoaned the fact that the Asean region has been slow to act, or suggested that Asean has proven itself powerless in the face of crisis. Yet again this blurs the distinction between those who are primarily responsible for the flight of the Rohingya and those who are now faced with the challenge of coping with this human exodus.

The former are those who caused the crisis in the first place, and they include the right-wing ethno-nationalists and sectarian groups in Myanmar who have demonised the Rohingya, and in our analysis of the current situation we need to be clear on where the responsibility for this crisis lies, and who ought to take primary responsibility.

The other countries of Asean may have been slow in their response to the flight of the Rohingya, but none of the other countries of Asean is directly responsible for their flight.

The real test for Asean at the moment is thus two-fold: On the one hand, there is the growing need to find some means to deal with a crisis that can be compared with the flight of the Vietnamese boat people in the past, which requires Asean to get its act together and emphasise, yet again, the spirit of Asean cooperation on the basis of a common Asean history and shared destiny.

Asean needs to speak up

BUT Asean also has to be aware that its policy of non-intervention in the affairs of member-states has been problematic for some, and during times of crisis such as these the norm of non-intervention has been used to discredit Asean as a whole and paint a disparaging picture of the grouping as little more than a talk shop.

In the way that Asean states today have become more assertive when dealing with non-conventional security issues such as cross-border pollution, and more willing to speak up when one country's environmental problems become the problems of other countries, so should Asean states recognise that political crisis in one state may well become a shared crisis for the region as a whole. This can happen, however, only when we accept that some crises - such as the flight of the Rohingya - are not disasters that happen "naturally".

The Rohingya issue is also an occasion for the communities of Asean to reflect upon themselves and how they view the world around them. On a positive note, it should be recognised that in many countries across Asean at the moment, there has been an outpouring of concern and sympathy, which affirms a commitment to a sense of common humanity that we all share, regardless of differences in culture or nationality. We are not, after all, heartless and indifferent to the plight of others.

But we should also be wary of over-emphasising the victimhood of the Rohingya, or casting them permanently in the role of the unfortunate and vulnerable, for such discourses of victimhood - when overplayed - can also hobble the Other and reduce others to the status of the perpetual victim.

The Rohingya crisis is a man-made problem, with human actors and agents responsible. Concerted effort by nations and national actors is needed to resolve the crisis at that level.

But the victims happen to be human too, and we should never forget that. Consider the fact that many of these refugees - be they the ones from Africa or from Myanmar - have spent weeks, perhaps even months, at sea; and have been forced to survive on sea water or even urine.

What is that, if not a testimony to their strength and their enduring will to survive at all costs?

Do not brand them homeless illegal immigrants. Do not dismiss them as boat people, as though their desperate bid for a better life in a vessel defines their identity and their existence.

The very least that we need to do for these people is to recognise them for what they are: human beings with a cultural identity and history, endowed with dignity and who deserve a modicum of respect rather than condescension.

The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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