Maritime ping-pong game with the human life in the sea

By Aman Ullah

“The Andaman Sea is about to become a floating mass grave, and it’s because of the failure of governments, including our own, to do what is necessary.”
Nick Kristof in the New York Times
During April and May of this year, the succession of earthquakes which continues to rock Nepal has created a humanitarian crisis of comparable scale to the country’s 10-year civil war, compressed into the space of less than three weeks.

The first earthquake, on April 25, killed over 8,000 people, injured over 18,000, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. Perhaps a million people were rendered homeless. The second quake toppled already weakened buildings, triggered a series of landslides further hampering relief efforts, and is presumed to have extended the disaster area further to the east.

The mountains of Nepal are weeping. The restless earth shifted, and thousands of people perished. Many more thousands have been injured. Hundreds of villages have been flattened. Stone houses made by hand were literally shaken apart. But what was created by hand can be rebuilt the same way, and that is exactly what the Nepalese villagers are doing. What can never be replaced are the loved ones, many of whom are still being discovered buried beneath the rubble.

This is a natural humanitarian crisis (or “humanitarian disaster”) in Nepal. It has been estimated that at least eight million people need humanitarian assistance. The number is expected to rise as response teams are reaching out to remote parts of the country, according to a report by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM). The whole international community prompts to response with a focus on meeting the critical need from rescue and relief to rebuild, which bring help and hope to those who need it most.

During 1978 and 1979, the mass flight of hundreds of thousands of boat people from Vietnam caused a man made international humanitarian crisis with the Southeast Asian countries increasingly unwilling to accept more boat people on their shores. After negotiations and an international conference in 1979, Vietnam agreed to limit the flow of people leaving the country, the Southeast Asian countries agreed to admit the boat people temporarily, and the rest of the world, especially the developed countries, agreed to assume most of the costs of caring for the boat people and to resettle them in their countries.

Now, another man made humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the seas off Thailand, which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees term as “a potential humanitarian disaster.” A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred migrants from Burma (Myanmar) was spotted adrift in the Andaman Sea yesterday, part of an exodus in which thousands of people have taken to the sea in recent weeks, but no country has been willing to take them in.

An estimated 6,000-20,000 migrants are adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca, many believed to have been abandoned by their traffickers with little food or water. Their presence has created a crisis in Southeast Asia. Most were thought to be headed to Malaysia, but after more than 1,500 migrants came ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week, both countries declared their intention to turn away any more boats carrying migrants.

They’re mainly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, one of the most persecuted groups in the world. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group that has faced violent attacks by radical Buddhists in Burma and official discrimination by the government.

In the past three years, more than 120,000 Rohingyas have boarded ships to flee abroad, according to the UN refugee agency.

It published a report in May saying that 25,000 migrants had left Myanmar and Bangladesh in the first quarter of this year, about double the number over the same period last year. Between 40-60% of the 25,000 are thought to originate from Myanmar’s western State of Rakhine.

The oppression they suffer there is so severe “that they feel they have no option but to leave”, said Chris Lewa, a Bangkok-based Rohingya expert.

More than one million Rohingya live in Burma, and tens of thousands have fled in recent years. But the exodus over the past few weeks seems to have caught everyone by surprise. The fact that so many are at sea at once, however, may be in part an unintended consequence of the Thai crackdown on trafficking.

According to Professor Penny Green of   the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), based at Queen Mary University of London, the current crisis is the direct result of government sponsored actions against the Rohingya, which together amount to genocide.

“The Myanmar government’s ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority has, in the last two years, reached a level so untenable that tens of thousands have been forced to flee on boats. The current exodus of those seeking asylum is just one manifestation of persecution consistent with genocide,” said Professor Green.

According to Professor Green, there is a general reluctance to define an event as genocide until after mass killing begins. “Our research is being conducted within a state crime framework in which genocide is understood as a process, building over a period of years, and involving an escalation in the dehumanization and persecution of the target group. The Rohingya have been subject to stigmatization, harassment, isolation, and systematic weakening. The Rohingya are faced with only two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee. Those who remain suffer destitution; malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood, land ownership; and the ever present threat of violence and corruption,” said Professor Green.

The UN this week urged governments to fulfill an obligation to rescue those at sea and “keep their borders and ports open … to help the vulnerable people who are in need”.

Instead of collaborating to avert humanitarian crisis, the Southeast Asian nations are playing a maritime ping-pong game with the human life in the sea.  In Europe, countries are working together to deal with a tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

“They have no food, no water and are drinking their own urine,” said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Bangkok

“This is a game of maritime ping-pong with human life. We expect governments in the region to find a solution rapidly … or we will be finding boatloads of desiccated corpses floating around in the Andaman Sea in coming days,” he said.

“These boats carrying overcrowded refugees and migrants are typically rickety wooden trawlers and hardly seaworthy,” said Eric Paulson, executive director for the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty. “Turning or towing these boats away is as good as signing their death warrant as the occupants are normally starving, dehydrated, sickly and in dire need of immediate assistance.” he added.

The Thai and Malaysian navies have both turned away refugee boats in recent days. Indonesia has taken in some migrants but is now refusing to accept them.

“If they break the law and land in Thailand, how can we take care of them?” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters Thursday. “Where will the budget come from? That money will need to come from Thai people’s taxes, right?” “Right now we have to find a place for them to stay. In the future, if many more of them come, it will cause a problem. They will steal the jobs and livelihoods of Thais.”

For Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority countries, the issue is less clear-cut, said Lex Rieffel, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Brookings Institution, but they are also interested in avoiding the appearance that they are opening the gates.
“We will try to prevent them from entering our territory, otherwise it will create social issues,” Reuters quotes Indonesia’s military chief Gen. Moeldoko as telling reporters. “If we open up access, there will be an exodus here.”

“What do you expect us to do?” Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar was quoted by The Guardian as saying. “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.”

Michael Buehler, a lecturer in comparative politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, points out that Indonesia has taken in several hundred Rohingya migrants in Aceh Province. Even so, Indonesia — like Thailand and Malaysia — also fears “an uncontrolled influx.”

Australia, which has dealt with its own influx of economic migrants fleeing Indonesia, says it is providing millions of dollars in urgent humanitarian aid to help cope with the problem. “There are no easy answers on any aspect of this horrible mess,” said   Rieffel.

The United States, for its part, has called on regional governments to work together to save lives, but State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke stresses: “This is a regional issue. It needs a regional solution in short order.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Thai counterpart Friday to urge Bangkok to give the refugees temporary shelter, according to the department.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, has implored the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to do something. Rieffel says that’s unlikely to happen.

Unlike the European Union’s response to migrants fleeing, the North African coast on boats across the Mediterranean, he says, “the reality is that ASEAN is not the U.S. or the European Union.”

ASEAN is “not a regional body and it doesn’t have a budget or a mechanism for dealing with this situation,” Rieffel adds.

And some experts say that simply towing refugees back out to sea may be illegal under international maritime law.

Lawrence B. Brennan, a professor of admiralty and international law at Fordham University, agrees. “Historically, maritime law has the concept of ‘port of refuge’ for ships and people in peril at sea. There is a long-standing tradition of providing aid and comfort to people who are in danger,” he says.

According to Brennan, “the flowing of thousands of refugees and/or undocumented immigrants is a Global Issue. It is a primary issue in the Mediterranean, it is a primary issue in Southeast Asia, and it is a primary issue in the United States as well as Central and South America. This is a Global Issue and Global Issues can only be resolved with Global Solutions.”

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