Only two options: stay and die or leave by boat

By Aman Ullah

“The conditions in Muslim [internally displaced person] camps are abysmal, and I received heartbreaking testimonies from Rohingya people telling me they had only two options: stay and die or leave by boat,” Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar
Southeast Asia is in the grips of a spiraling humanitarian crisis, with around 1,600 migrants landing on the shores of the two Muslim-majority countries that over the years have shown the most sympathy for the Rohingya’s plight.

In the last few days, hundreds of Rohingya have washed up on the shores of Indonesia. With thousands more believed to be in the busy Malacca Strait and nearby waters — some stranded for more than two months —who have no place to go after two Southeast Asian nations refused to offer refuge to boatloads of hungry men, women and children.

Amnesty International has confirmed that a boat crammed with some 350 people, including children, is currently drifting off the coast of Thailand and Malaysia. The hundreds of people, believed to be from Myanmar or Bangladesh, have been at sea for “many days”, possibly more than two months. Their crew abandoned them several days ago. The passengers are without food and water and are in urgent need of medical care.

Worried that boats will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organizations have held emergency meetings, but participants say there are no immediate plans to search for vessels in the busy Malacca Strait.

Hundreds of those people are believed to be Rohingya, labeled by the U.N. one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, who have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Denied citizenship by national law, the Muslims are effectively stateless. Access to education and adequate health care is limited and freedom of movement severely restricted.

In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunity for work.

According to a UNHCR Report published in August last year, more than 20,000 Rohingya people have risked their lives in Indian oceans. However, these figures could well be just a fraction of thousands of people already risked their lives by boat journeys. Since then, the numbers of the people leaving Myanmar have kept increasing as the persecution by its government continues. Nevertheless, sadly, all the calls to stop the tragic trafficking of the violence-hit victims have fallen into deaf ears until the recent findings of mass graves of trafficking victims in southern Thailand.

That has sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people the region has seen since the Vietnam War, an estimated 100,000 men, women and children boarding ships in search of better lives in other countries since June 2012, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

“These are people in desperate straits,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, calling on governments to band together to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer. “Time is not on their side.”

Amnesty International request to all the South East Asian governments to step up urgent search and rescue efforts to ensure that thousands of people stranded in boats are not left in dire circumstances and at risk of death,

The United Nations pleaded for countries in the region to keep their borders open and help rescue those stranded.

“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency said Tuesday.

Unless they’re unseaworthy and sinking, he said, the navy will provide “provisions and send them away.”

Hours earlier, Indonesia pushed back a boat packed with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, saying they were given food, water and directions to Malaysia — their original destination.

The UN refugee agency is extremely alarmed at reports suggesting that Indonesia and Malaysia may have pushed back boats carrying vulnerable people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

As conflicts and persecution force more and more people to seek safety beyond international borders, UNHCR has been emphasizing the importance of saving lives on the high seas.

“The first priority is to save lives. Instead of competing to avoid responsibility, it is key for States to share the responsibility to disembark these people immediately,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.

“Sea crossings are a symptom of desperation as people are left with no other choice but to risk their lives,” Mr Türk said. He reiterated the agency’s global call for legal alternatives to access protection and safety, “Nobody should have to put their lives into the hands of ruthless smugglers.”

UNHCR is asking countries in South-east Asia to approach this as a regional issue with real human consequences as it has been engaging governments in the region on the growing problem of irregular maritime movements. The agency has been sharing information collected from interviews with hundreds of Rohingya who survived the journey, and offering concrete suggestions on coordinated responses.

Once the humanitarian needs are met, agencies like UNHCR can support States to interview the different groups and target solutions to their specific needs, as those being rescued are likely to be a mix of refugees, economic migrants, and victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children among those being smuggled.

The current situation highlights the urgent need for regional cooperation to address the challenge of irregular maritime movements. Through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, UNHCR has been advocating for coordinated regional responses to search and rescue, disembarkation, needs identification and solutions.

A crackdown on irregular arrivals in Thailand seems to have forced smugglers and traffickers to look for new routes. The International Organization for Migration believes that 8,000 people may still be on boats close to Thailand.

The thousands of people who have fled Bangladesh and Myanmar include vulnerable migrants, refugees such as Muslim Rohingya fleeing discrimination and violence in Myanmar, and victims of human trafficking. Many are desperate enough to put their own lives at risk by braving dangerous journeys at sea in order to escape unbearable conditions at home.

“The thousands of lives at risk should be the immediate priority, but the root causes of this crisis must also be addressed. The fact that thousands of Rohingya prefer a dangerous boat journey they may not survive to staying in Myanmar speaks volumes about the conditions they face there,” said Kate Schuetze.

A State Department spokesman, Jeff Rathke, on Wednesday expressed concern about Myanmar Rohingya Muslim refugees flowing to neighboring countries but did not hint at any American involvement on the issue.

“We are concerned by reports of thousands of additional Rohingya migrants on land and at sea in boats and who may need humanitarian protection and assistance,” said Jeff Rathke.

He said the U.S. is closely following the situation and is in contact with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the International Organization for Migration.

United to End Genocide, a U.S. based human rights advocacy group, called on the Obama administration to take immediate action to help rescue thousands of Rohingya who are floating in the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia fleeing horrific conditions in western Burma. The group also called for the imposition of sanctions on the government of Burma if it continues its relentless persecution of the Rohingya – the root cause of the crisis.

“Immediate action is needed to rescue thousands of Rohingya before the Andaman Sea becomes a floating mass grave,” said former U.S. Congressman Tom Andrews, President of United to End Genocide, who recently returned from Burma and Malaysia, where he met with families of Rohingya who had travelled by boat from Burma.

“Three immediate steps must be taken by the United States to stem the growing crisis:

* Demand that the government of Indonesia stop towing boats full of innocent men, women and children out to sea.

* Help launch an immediate search and rescue operation that fully utilizes all available U.S. resources to save imperiled lives. There is no time to lose – every hour counts!

* Address the source of this crisis – the systematic government abuse and persecution of the Rohingya.

“Governments in South East Asia must act immediately to stop this unfolding humanitarian crisis. It is crucial that countries in the region launch coordinated search and rescue operations to save those at sea – anything less could be a death sentence for thousands of people,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International Asia Pacific Researcher.

“It’s harrowing to think that hundreds of people are right now drifting in a boat perilously close to dying, without food or water, and without even knowing where they are.”

“The Malaysian authorities have a duty to protect and not punish the hundreds of people who reached the country’s shores today. They must be given the medical care they desperately need, and in no circumstances be sent back to sea or transferred to a place where their rights or lives are put at risk,” said Kate Schuetze.

“Comments by the authorities that they will turn back those arriving on boats are an affront to human dignity. What’s more, if authorities follow through with these threats, they will be violating Malaysia’s international legal obligations.”

Rohingyas are first of all human beings; the right to life is the most basic rights of all the human being. No people leave their traditional hearths and homes unless there is a serious threat to their personal security. For decades, wave after wave of Burmese refugees have fled war and oppression in their native land to seek uncertain exile in neighboring countries. Human suffering is in calculable, and the continual mass migrations have created serious regional disruptions and tensions.

Rohingyas are the most persecuted among them.

The most important thing at this juncture is to save lives, instead of competing to avoid responsibility, it is key for States to share the responsibility to disembark these people immediately, Pushing them from the coast is not solution. Otherwise, as have no place to go after two Southeast Asian nations refused to offer refuge to boatloads of hungry men, women and children, they will continue to be nothing but just bodies for sale.

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