Action must to save Rohingyas

A massive humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the waters off Southeast Asia. Some 3,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who were abandoned by human smugglers in high seas, have arrived on Southeast Asian shores. According to the United Nations, another 3,500 are currently adrift in overcrowded and rickety boats in the Andaman Seas and the Bay of Bengal. The crisis erupted recently with the Thai government cracking down against human smuggling. This prompted traffickers to abandon boats filled with refugees in the high seas. Those approaching the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia were forced back. With no country agreeing to accept them, a humanitarian crisis loomed as many of the refugees are stranded in turbulent waters, exhausted and without food or drinking water. International outrage has rightly soared over the indifference of Southeast governments to the plight of the fleeing refugees.

The Rohingyas are among the world’s most persecuted people. In Myanmar, they have faced extreme discrimination for decades. They do not get jobs and are routinely at the receiving end of mob violence and pogroms. Many have been denied citizenship in Myanmar. Millions have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh but there too, they are locked up in filthy and overcrowded camps. So precarious is their situation in Myanmar and Bangladesh that thousands risk the dangerous journey across choppy seas to find a home elsewhere in Southeast Asia. They haven’t been too successful as the fate of thousands of Rohingya refugees adrift in the sea indicates. They are unwelcome everywhere. Their future seems hopeless.

It is in this context that the decisions of the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia not to drive away refugees arriving at their shores and to provide them shelter are heartening. However, this is temporary and conditional on the international community resettling and repatriating them within a year. The refugees will not be willing to return home so long as persecution persists. If they are forcefully repatriated, they will flee again. ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member-states has played a major role in precipitating the humanitarian crisis. By ignoring Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, it allowed the problem to fester. It must act now as other ASEAN members are impacted by the refugee influx. ASEAN must push Myanmar’s rulers to end their exclusion of the Rohingyas in order to stem the exodus. Besides, Southeast Asian countries will need to adopt more hospitable policies towards refugees. Ad-hoc arrangements may serve to defuse a crisis quickly but do not provide lasting solutions.

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