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As every crisis unfolds, the true nature of its players is inevitably revealed in the choices made and the actions taken. A large number of people fleeing Burma and Bangladesh to Southeast Asia presents governments and people of the region with an intricately complex problem, but we must choose to take responsible actions that will shape the legacies of this generation of leaders.
Some reports say as many as 8,000 migrants are stranded at sea. Those who have come ashore speak of death and deprivation at the hands of criminal gangs. Southeast Asian nations are turning them away, in name of the campaign to crack down on human trafficking, but effectively condemning them to death at sea because they are denied anywhere to land. We are inviting a worst case scenario in which boats filled with the dead drift in the oceans in a gruesome testament to inhumanity.
Since the discovery of mass graves of migrants who died at the hands of human traffickers along the Thai-Malaysian border it has become clear trafficking is one piece of a much larger, multi-dimensional and transnational challenge. The discovery of thousands of men, many trafficked and even enslaved in Benjina, Indonesia, is another indication of the scale of the problem of the irregular movement of people in Southeast Asia.
There must be a paradigm shift from piecemeal isolated efforts in a crackdown on the criminals running the business of trafficking, to a comprehensive transnational set of policies enacted by governments, law enforcers and all involved parties to tackle the causes and mechanisms fuelling the human trafficking business – and protect the migrants’ lives and rights.
Rohingya leaders in Burma’s western Arakan [Rakhine] State report rising deprivation and segregation causes more Muslims to turn to trafficking gangs that operate in the Bay of Bengal. An estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled the state since violence broke out in 2012. Thousands more are kept in camps after being displaced by the violence.
The only way to escape their misery is by turning to traffickers who take them by boat to transit camps in Thailand for eventual transportation to Malaysia and elsewhere. Survivors of the camps in southern Thailand describe regular beatings, torture and killings by the traffickers, in order to extract money from the migrants’ families. Human rights advocates have described “a widespread pattern of death, torture and exploitation”.
The crackdown comes just weeks after an Associated Press investigation uncovered the slavery of hundreds of men, on Benjina island, who said they were tricked or lured into working for years in appalling conditions on boats allegedly owned and crewed by Thai nationals, to fish and process seafood distributed to the USA, Europe and Asia.
Again this is not an isolated incident. The International Labour Organisation estimates 17 percent of workers in the sector are subjected to forced labour. As many as 4,000 men were stranded on islands surrounding Benjina.
Many of the workers have yet to go home. Some chose to remain and demand their wages. Indonesian and Thai authorities pledged to take further action to prevent abuse.
ASEAN foreign ministers must hold an emergency meeting to discuss this serious regional humanitarian dilemma and form a task force to tackle the problem as a matter of urgency.
The United Nations is in the best position to take the lead on international support to find immediate and longer term agreements acceptable to all stakeholders to save more lives.
One possible model for coordination of national, regional and international responses is the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) formed in 2008 after Burma, officially known as Myanmar, was devastated by Cyclone Nargis.
The TCG brought together the Burmese government, ASEAN and the United Nations, and allowed the delivery of desperately needed help under the leadership of an ASEAN task force. There is no reason this could not be replicated and adapted appropriately for this crisis.
The source of the problem is the situation in Burma, which must take responsibility through engagement and regional cooperation for humanitarian assistance, poverty reduction and inclusive development of Arakan State.
Without durable solutions, this will continue to affect regional human security in both Burma specifically, and ASEAN as a whole. This is why former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and I took the unprecedented step of writing to ASEAN leaders last month, calling for active engagement to address this matter.
We urgently need to work with Burma to reduce the desperation and other push factors causing Rohingya to leave the country in boats. We need to help Burma fulfill its obligations according to international humanitarian law.
In the meantime, we also need to ensure that Rohingya already in the region, children in particular, have access to safety, food, shelter and the education necessary to build their ability to help their community.
The rapidly escalating dangers of unprecedented migration from the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia is nothing less than a test of our capacity for humanity.
Syed Hamid Albar was Malaysia’s foreign minister from 1999 to 2008 and is currently the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) special envoy on Myanmar and founder of the non-government organisation Humaniti.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on 18 May 2015.