The Debate

Asia’s Watery Graveyard for Asylum Seekers

The tragedy unfolding in the Andaman Sea can no longer be ignored.

Asia’s Watery Graveyard for Asylum Seekers
Credit: Flickr/ European Commission DG Echo

On the Andaman Sea, west of the Siam peninsula in Asia, a tragic scandal is unfolding. Thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers who had recently fled Myanmar or Bangladesh on boats — mostly small open fishing boats and larger trawlers — and a smaller number of Bangladeshis, have been trying to reach Malaysia, where many Rohingya have previously sought refuge.

Because of new crackdowns on traffickers in Thailand and new policies by Malaysia and Indonesia to turn back any of the boats that reach their shores, these “boat people” have been forced into a situation of immense peril: packed together, floating on the open sea at risk of drowning, disease, and dehydration.

Most have fled Rakhine State in western Myanmar, where Rohingya in recent years have faced ethnic cleansing, first in bloody outbreaks of violence in 2012 and 2013, and then through government-sanctioned policies of ethnic-based internment. Hundreds of thousands have fled since 2012.

In some cases, ship crews or traffickers have abandoned their “cargo” at sea. In other cases, ships have been stranded because of engine breakdowns, or have approached shore because they are sinking. Every day for the last week, rights groups and journalists have documented new ships — some drifting on open water off Thailand, some landing north of the resort province of Phuket, in Aceh, Indonesia, or on Langkawi island in Malaysia — collectively carrying more than 2,000 people. Hundreds of others have recently appeared out of the Thai jungles in the south — it appears traffickers abandoned them in transit camps when the crackdowns began last week, a response to a terrible discovery on May 1: a mass grave of Rohingya who appear to have been killed by traffickers or who succumbed to sickness while being trafficked.

On top of the peril of flight, Rohingya face extreme dangers from traffickers, often going into debt and ending up as hostages held for more money from relatives or friends. Many of those who end up in Malaysia live in debt bondage, a form of forced labor.

The underlying crisis, of course, is directly due to despicable conduct of the Burmese government and local authorities in Rakhine State, from where most of the Rohingya are fleeing. But the policies and actions of the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian governments now confronting the outflow caused by Myanmar are inhumane and cruel.

On Thursday, an intrepid New York Times reporter convinced a Thai mobile phone company to give him the coordinates of a stranded vessel, as calculated from a mobile telephone on board, and rented a speed boat to go there. He, a photojournalist, and an accompanying BBC correspondent, documented the terrible conditions. Passengers were packed in close quarters with little food and water. The Thai Navy followed and dropped food, water, and medical supplies. Then, instead of towing the ship to safety, they made repairs to the engine, gave rudimentary instructions to some of the Rohingya on how to operate the ship, and towed it to sea and sent it on toward Malaysia — knowing full well that the Malaysian Navy will attempt to intercept it and force it back north.

It is imperative that they abandon these “pushback” policies and begin rescuing ships in distress and bringing the boats to shore, where government bodies and the United Nations and other agencies can help those in desperate need of assistance.

The Thai government this week proposed a regional summit to discuss the crisis — it would be held two weeks from now. That is far too long to wait. The relevant countries should convene immediately to discuss next steps for processing the asylum seekers and finding long-term settlement solutions. The United States and other donors should attend and offer help with mediation between the countries, and fund the response. The U.S. military should also offer to assist in search and rescue.

This crisis is extremely urgent. It is a situation in which key decisions have to be made in hours and days — not weeks or months. If immediate action is not taken, the Andaman Sea could turn into a watery graveyard, and when that happens, responsibility will lie squarely on those who stood in a position to help but failed to do.

John Sifton is Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @johnsifton