(CNN) — The rights of those people stranded at sea or in holding camps should be the top priority, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned ahead of a regional meeting in Bangkok designed to provide solutions to Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis.
“Regional governments should work with the United Nations and others to agree on binding solutions to this human tragedy — not sweep it under the rug as they have done for years,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in a statement.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an estimated 25,000 Southeast Asian migrants took to the seas in the first three months of 2015.
The Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, which takes place Friday, will bring together representatives from Southeast Asian nations as well as Australia, New Zealand, Afghanistan and Iran, among others.
The U.S., Switzerland and representatives from the UNCHR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will be present as observers.
At a meeting last week, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to temporarily accept thousands of migrants, as long as the international community helps to resettle them within one year.
But HRW has called for “unimpeded and unconditional access” for internationally-recognized organizations like UNHCR and IOM to rescued migrants and refugees in order to assess their claims for refugee status.
“It’s going to be very important for front-line states to provide full and unimpeded access to the UNHCR and assess whether they are eligible,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told CNN Wednesday.
“The one-year deadline is only going to happen if there are impartial assessments (of refugee status claims) by international agencies like the UNHCR.”
Short- and long-term solutions
The advocacy group has also called for better search and rescue capabilities now and in the future, and urged participants at Friday’s meeting to demand that Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries permit disembarkation of seaborne migrants.
In order to secure longer term solutions, HRW says they should “exert pressure on Burma as the main source of the problem,” and provide basic health, education, and other services for Rohingya in an effort to curb illegal migration.
Burma is also known as Myanmar.
“This regional meeting will only be a success if every government commits to effective search and rescue operations, meeting the protection needs of refugees, prosecuting traffickers, and resolving the root causes that drive these desperate people onto boats,” Adams said.
“International burden sharing, including resettling refugees, is also important, but will only be a lasting solution if all governments agree that human rights must be at the center of all current and future policies.”
Arrests made over Malaysia camps
Two police officers have been arrested thus far in connection to migrant graves discovered on the Malay-Thai border earlier this week, according to CNN’s Ivan Watson, who is with Malaysian authorities in the area.
Malaysian authorities said that the 139 graves and 28 abandoned camps found were related to human trafficking.
Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said Thursday that Malaysian police and border guards working as part of a joint operation, found a burial site that contained corpses which had decomposed to the level that only skin and bones remained.
Fences and sentry posts indicated the camps held captive migrants, he said.
Malaysian officials told CNN that evidence pointed to the graves being part of a established burial ground.
“You must see the Muslim aspect of the grave, it seems like a Muslim ceremonial burial,” said Deputy Inspector-General of Police Noor Rashid, pointing to the existence of traditional Muslim burial shrouds as evidence.
Four bodies have been exhumed thus far, and officials expect the exhumation process to be finished by June 8.
Those who have experienced the camps tell of a brutal existence as the brokers seek to extort the migrants’ relatives.
“Brokers told our relatives to send the money and beat us when we were on the phone. They’re very bad people,” Sharuf Khan, a Rohingya migrant who spent seven months in a jungle camp, told CNN affiliate ITN. “There’s little to eat here. Some people starve. Many are sick.
“One man didn’t have the money to pay the ransom, so the brokers beat him. They handed him over to the camp guards, and said, ‘you can finish him.’ The guards took a rope and hanged him.”
Forced onto boats
Earlier in the week HRW alleged that some of the thousands of displaced boat people — many of whom are still stranded at sea — were forcibly removed from their homes and put on migrant ships.
The agency has collated witness reports from Rohingya Muslims — a minority which endures persecution in Myanmar — who say they were forced to leave the country by groups of men armed with knives and guns.
Yasmine, a 13-year-old girl, told HRW that a dozen men came to her home in Rakhine State, home to many Rohingya, and told her she needed to leave Myanmar to join her brother in Malaysia.
“They dragged me to the boat, they had sticks and threatened to beat me,” she said. “I screamed, I cried loudly. My parents were weeping, but they couldn’t do anything. I went onto the boat with three men. When I got to the big boat… I cannot explain my feeling, I was so scared.”
Another, 16-year-old Arefa, said six Rakhine Buddhists from Bangladesh, armed with knives and guns, forced her to get on a boat.
“They told me I was leaving Myanmar,” she said. After a six-hour journey to a larger vessel she spent two months at sea with 95 other migrants, amid dwindling food supplies and abysmal sanitary conditions, before arriving in Malaysia.
“I don’t know what I’ll do in Malaysia, I have no money. I miss Myanmar, but I know I cannot go back,” she said.
Whether seeking a new life voluntarily or forcibly removed from their homes, migrants and refugees from Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh have no choice but to put their lives into the hands of unscrupulous brokers and traffickers.
After weeks or even months at sea, they are either dumped in unfamiliar countries like Thailand, with no money, to fend for themselves, or are herded into camps in the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia where they are held captive and further mistreated.
“Survivors describe how they flee persecution in Burma only to fall into the hands of traffickers and extortionists, in many cases witnessing deaths and suffering abuse and hunger,” said Adams.
“Interviews with officials and others make clear that these brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people.” –Euan McKirdy, CNN
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