WASHINGTON — The United States is coming under pressure from human rights groups and some in Congress to help Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea as Southeast Asian nations refuse to let them come to shore.
Washington is stepping up its calls for governments to work together to save migrants stranded off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, saying that lives are in danger. But it appears reluctant to provide direct US help in search and rescue.
“This is a regional issue. It needs a regional solution in short order,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters Thursday.
In the last three years, more than 120,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled oppression in Buddhist-majority Burma, paying huge sums to human smugglers. But faced with a recent regional crackdown, the smugglers have abandoned the ships, leaving an estimated 6,000 refugees to fend for themselves, according to reliable aid workers and human rights groups.
“These men, women, children and infants are refugees fleeing well-founded fear of persecution and their deaths may well constitute a mass atrocity in the heart of Asean,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, referring to Southeast Asia’s regional bloc.
He called on the United States to implore its allies in the region to accept the refugees, and for the Washington to consider providing humanitarian assistance, including the use of reconnaissance imagery and the deployment of naval and air assets if necessary, to rescue those in danger.
The United States frequently holds military drills on humanitarian assistance and disaster response in Southeast Asia, but Washington could be reluctant to get directly involved in this unfolding crisis because it lacks an answer to the underlying problem: Where will the migrants go?
Although 1,600 have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week, no country appears willing to take any more, fearing it could result in an unstoppable flow. Malaysia on Thursday turned away two crammed migrant boats and Thailand kept at bay a large vessel with hundreds of hungry people.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the United States could galvanize action by regional governments by calling a meeting itself, and should not wait for a Thailand-hosted gathering on the issue scheduled for May 29, as people are already dying at sea.
Rathke said the United States is urging countries of the region “to work together to save lives at sea” and is coordinating with international organizations. US ambassadors are raising the issue with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. He added that Burma needs urgently to improve the humanitarian situation in Arakan State, from where the Rohingya have fled in droves.
The displacement of stateless Rohingya has been a black mark on Burma’s transition from decades of military rule, a shift often touted as a US foreign policy success. Burma regards the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh although many have lived in the country for generations.
Tom Andrews, president of the US-based group United to End Genocide, said the United States has a moral responsibility to help. He described the root cause of the migration as a “march to genocide” against the Rohingya, a minority that has faced sectarian attacks and deepening discrimination.
But he also faulted Indonesia and Malaysia for failing to rescue migrants and even towing boats back out to sea, saying: “This is a death sentence for perhaps several thousand people.”