No Major Breakthrough at Meeting on Asian Boat People Crisis

By Jocelyn Gecker & Malcolm J. Foster 31 May 2015

BANGKOK — A regional conference called to address the swelling tide of boat people in Southeast Asia ended with no major breakthroughs, with Burma deflecting blame for fueling the crisis and warning that “finger pointing” would not help.

But delegates agreed on one thing at least—the need to keep talking. The United States also prepared to begin surveillance flights in Thai airspace to help search for migrants who might be still stranded, after Thailand gave its permission.

In Burma, state television said the navy had seized a boat with 727 migrants off the coast of the Irrawaddy Delta region, the latest vessel found in the last few weeks. The report identified those on board as “Bengalis”—a reference to Bangladeshis—and said they were taken to a nearby island. Forty-five of them were children.

Friday’s meeting in Bangkok was attended by representatives of 17 countries, along with the United States and Japan and officials from international organizations such as the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration. That so many countries—including Burma—participated was considered progress in itself.

“The most encouraging result was the general consensus that these discussions need to continue,” said IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing. “It cannot be a one-off.”

Southeast Asia has been beset for years by growing waves of desperate migrants from Bangladesh and Burma. In the last several weeks alone, at least 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have made their way ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown that has unearthed the graves of dozens of people who died while being kept hostage in illegal trafficking camps.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma, which has denied them basic rights, including citizenship, and confined more than 100,000 to camps. There are more than 1 million Rohingya living in the country.

At the start of the meeting, the United Nations’ assistant high commissioner for refugees responsible for protection, Volker Turk, said there could be no solution if root causes are not addressed.

“This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal,” he said. “In the interim … recognizing that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required [as well as] access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms.”

Htin Linn, the acting director of Burma’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, shot back in a speech afterward, saying Turk should “be more informed.” He also cast doubt on whether “the spirit of cooperation is prevailing in the room. … Finger pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere.”

The word “Rohingya” did not appear on the invitation for the meeting, after Burma threatened to boycott the talks if it did, and most of those who spoke avoided it. Burma’s government does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group, saying they are Bangladeshis. Bangladesh also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens.

An official summary of the meeting included a list of proposals and recommendations, including ensuring the United Nations has access to migrants and addressing the issue’s root causes. It was not clear that any of them had been agreed on, however, or that they would be implemented.

There were small signs of progress. Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn said Bangkok agreed to allow the US military to operate flights out of Thailand to search for boats—one week after Washington put in a request to do so. The United States pledged US$3 million to help the IOM deal with the crisis, and Australia promised $4.6 million toward humanitarian assistance in Burma.

Southeast Asian governments have largely ignored the issue for years. The problem has recently attracted international attention amid increased media scrutiny as more migrants and refugees pour out of the Bay of Bengal. In many cases, they pay human smugglers for passage to another country, but are instead held for weeks or months while traffickers extort more money from their families back home. Rights groups say some migrants have been beaten to death.

Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the migrants and put pressure on Burma to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.

Swing said more than 160,000 people have fled into Southeast Asia since 2012, 25,000 of them this year.

“These are large numbers, but this is not an invasion or an inundation. It is something that is entirely manageable if we can come together as a community with the right policies,” he said, adding that one of the challenges is changing the way migrants are viewed.

“Now it’s a fairly toxic narrative, a fairly negative one,” Swing said. But he said many nations were “built on the backs of migrants and with the minds of migrants. We need to … look upon migrants as opportunities rather than a problem.”

That will not be easy. Most countries in the region view the boat people as a burden, and refugees have been ping-ponged back and forth between Southeast Asian nations that have long tried to push them away.

In a turnaround, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed this month to provide Rohingya with shelter for one year.

Burma, meanwhile, released the results of its first census since 1982, putting the country’s population at 51.5 million. The figure included an estimate of more than 1 million people categorized by the United Nations as Rohingya. They were not physically counted in the census “to avoid the possibility of violence occurring due to intercommunal tensions,” the Population Ministry said.