The UN’s refugee agency says ASEAN must improve the search effort and fight human trafficking to address the growing humanitarian Rohingya crisis

MANILA, Philippines – It took international uproar and 3 weeks of headlines for Southeast Asian nations to finally act on the Rohingya but the United Nations said this will still help address one of the region’s worst humanitarian crises.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in the Philippines said that the decision of Indonesia and Malaysia to offer temporary shelter to 7,000 refugees adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea should be “highlighted and welcomed.”

Bernard Kerblat credited the two members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for reversing their decision to push away the boats in what human rights groups decried as “a deadly game of human ping-pong.”

“One thing we know with satisfaction is that from original disjoined, individual responses, we’re now getting closer to a consensus. The ASEAN members have taken their own individual responses in order to face their responsibility,” Kerblat said in a press briefing in Makati on Wednesday, May 27.

“That is, you may argue, it may have come late but better late than never.”

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand drew heavy global condemnation for initially refusing to allow ships carrying Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, and desperate migrant workers from Bangladesh to land. Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta changed their stance after meeting in Malaysia last Wednesday.

On the 27th day of the crisis, Kerblat hailed the move as a “positive, icebreaking step” but stressed that this is not enough.

The UN official said it will be crucial to monitor the May 29 summit in Bangkok, Thailand where 19 states will meet to discuss the global response to the crisis.

“We cannot ignore the importance of putting countries together to address this, to understand that this is serious. and it cannot be repeated again. That is the most important outcome of this summit,” Kerblat said.

Called by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the regional meeting was initially just set for Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Yet it evolved to gather representatives from the following ASEAN members:

  • Cambodia
  • Indonesia
  • Lao PDR
  • Malaysia
  • Myanmar
  • Philippines
  • Vietnam
  • Thailand

Beyond ASEAN, other nations are also taking part:

  • Afghanistan
  • Australia
  • Bangladesh
  • India
  • Iran
  • New Zealand
  • Pakistan
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Sri Lanka
  • The United States and Switzerland are also invited as observers.

Three UN agencies – the UNHCR, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – will also join the meeting.

Thousands of migrants swam to shore or were rescued since a Thai crackdown on human trafficking in early May forced smugglers to abandon weak and starving refugees at sea.

The disaster stems from state-sanctioned discrimination of the Rohingya in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship, freedom to travel, and access to education. The UN calls the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. (READ: FAST FACTS: Who are the Rohingya?)

‘No longer just ASEAN crisis’

Despite the belated actions of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, rights advocates said the region’s response remains wanting.

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian politician and chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said that the international community must push Buddhist-majority Myanmar to improve its treatment of the Rohingya.

“ASEAN promotes itself as an organization that promotes rule of law, democracy, a sharing and caring society… this is really a challenge, whereby the most vulnerable community in the region is now seeking help. And this isn’t just any kind of help, this is a matter of life and death,” he told CNN.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phelim Kline also told Rappler that ASEAN must speak with “one voice” to ensure that Myanmar respects the rights and freedom of the Rohingya.

Yet the UN refugee agency said that the issue calls for a multinational solution, going beyond ASEAN.

“There is a growing realization as exemplified by the composition of the forthcoming meeting that it is no longer an ASEAN crisis,” Kerblat said, echoing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Kerblat cited the multinational search and rescue effort for the refugees and migrants, with Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar taking part. Outside of the region, Turkey also dispatched a navy vessel while the US said it will make air assets available.

After saying it was open to welcoming the Rohingya, the Philippines is considering possibly joining the search effort.

World leaders also called for action on the plight of the Rohingya.

Kerblat said the messages of Pope Francis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed the “clear, unequivocal” urgency of the crisis.

Bigger search, anti-smuggling effort

The UNHCR and the IOM said that more search and rescue resources are needed to support the current operations.

The IOM is appealing for $26 million to fund the medical and integration needs of the refugees and migrants.

Still, the agencies stressed that even if all the boats are found and all the refugees are resettled, the problem will persist if the international community fails to address human trafficking.

“The underlying factor is [human] smuggling. If trafficking continues, desperate migrants will continue looking for better opportunities abroad. Traffickers use this desperation, profit from it, and trick these human beings,” said IOM Chief of Mission Marco Boasso.

The UNHCR said that refugees usually disembark in southern Thailand, with many of them entering Malaysia to worn in the plantation and construction sectors of the “black labor market.”

“They are employed without receiving salary for two to 3 years because that money is paid back to their smugglers,” Kerblat said.

If countries are unable to fight human trafficking, Kerblat said the problem will spread further in the region.

“In this ‘frequent flier program,’ in recent years, Indonesia is the new destination of the boat people, on the way to Australia. Many are stranded and intercepted. Indonesia doesn’t know what to do with them.” – Rappler.com