Southeast Asia Plans Fund to Help Migrants, But Offers Decried as Inadequate

By Reuters 3 July 2015

KUALA LUMPUR — Southeast Asian nations proposed on Thursday setting up a fund to tackle illegal migration, in one of the first coordinated actions after thousands of “boat people” arrived on the region’s shores, but rights groups dismissed the offers as mere tokens.

And representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) who met in Kuala Lumpur gave no updates on efforts to rescue hundreds believed still stranded at sea.

More than 4,000 migrants have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma and Bangladesh since Thailand launched a crackdown on people-smuggling gangs in May. The United Nations estimates 1,200 people are still at sea, most of them Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Burma.

Some Asean members pledged monetary support for sheltering migrants after Malaysia said it alone should not be burdened with the problem.

“I proposed, although not all Asean officials have agreed, a minimum of $100,000,” said Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi.

Singapore’s Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Masagos Zulkifli, said the island nation pledged $200,000.

But the sums were dismissed as insufficient by rights groups.

“The money may not even last a month, depending on what they use it for,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

Commenting on the missing boat people, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, Ahmad Pozi Abdul Kahar, said “they might be turning back to their own country.”

He did not elaborate but many boats are believed to be drifting freely after being abandoned by the traffickers.

Burma has said that very few of the migrants in the boat crisis were Burmese nationals.

Most of Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in the western state of Arakan. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in Arakan State in 2012. They are denied citizenship and have long complained of state-sanctioned discrimination.

“Not all [boat migrants] come from Myanmar Rohingya, only one third,” said Zahid, adding that “the rest come from Bangladesh and other small states near the Bay of Bengal.”

Asean’s reluctance to call out its member Burma on the refugee crisis is seen as another step backwards in resolving the crisis.

“Asean states need to step up and admit that one of the member states, Myanmar, is one of the root causes of the crisis,” said Sunai.

“Failure to address the root causes will lead to a situation that no matter how much Asean makes donations, it will never be able to match up with the gravity of the problem.”