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Indonesia Turns Away a Migrant Ship as the Region Grapples With an Influx

The New York Times - 12 May 2015 - The Indonesian Navy turned back a ship laden with migrants on Tuesday as experts warned that thousands of would-be arrivals from Myanmar and Bangladesh risked being stranded at sea.

The Indonesian Navy turned back a ship laden with migrants on Tuesday as experts warned that thousands of would-be arrivals from Myanmar and Bangladesh risked being stranded at sea.

The wooden ship was carrying thousands of passengers and had run out of fuel, said Maj. Gen. Fuad Basya, a spokesman for the Indonesian military. He said boarding the vessel would have been risky because of the large number of people on board.

“We finally decided to give them enough fuel and food so they could get to their destinations, to Malaysia,” he said. “They should not have entered Indonesian waters without our permission.”



The Thai government, which began a crackdown in recent weeks on human trafficking networks, announced on Tuesday that it had convened a meeting with representatives from governments around the region to help with “exchanges of information and intelligence on the current situation on irregular migration by sea.” But the meeting will not take place until the end of May.

More than 1,500 migrants have come ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia over the past three days, leaving governments struggling to respond to the wave of refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar and others leaving Bangladesh for better job prospects in wealthier countries.

The crisis has echoes of Europe’s problems curtailing the stream of migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike the European Union, countries in Southeast Asia appear to be going it alone in their response to the flotillas of desperate people.

“This issue is quite urgent,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government adviser and security expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It’s a very clear humanitarian issue — you need to rescue these people — but you have political complications and economic complications.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is preparing to form a regionwide single economic community by the end of the year, “doesn’t have a proper mechanism and is struggling with this,” Mr. Panitan said.

As a measure of the minimal regional cooperation, one of the leading sources of information on the Asian exodus is a Belgian woman, Chris Lewa, who tracks migration in the Andaman Sea. Ms. Lewa estimates that 6,000 to 20,000 migrants are still at sea. She was following the fate of one particular boat believed to be anchored somewhere off the coast of southern Thailand or the northern Malaysian peninsula.

Passengers on the boat have communicated with Ms. Lewa using a Thai mobile phone. The captain and crew fled on Sunday, and the 350 passengers, including 50 women and 84 children, ran out of food three days ago, the passengers told her. “They can see land on the horizon,” she said.

She asked a journalist to contact the Malaysian authorities to help find the abandoned boat. “You can’t just let these people die at sea,” she said.

The interception of boats in territorial waters is a gray area of international law, according to the United Nations. “An internationally accepted definition of interception does not exist,” says a document from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency asks governments not to return refugees to countries where they are at risk of persecution. The issue is clouded by the question of whether boat people are economic migrants or political refugees.

The migrants from Myanmar are mostly members of the Rohingya ethnic group, Muslims who have been persecuted by the government and by radical Buddhists in western Myanmar.

More than 1,000 migrants came ashore on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi on Monday. An additional 582 landed Sunday near Lhokseumawe, Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra.

In 2002, dozens of governments and United Nations agencies established the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. The organization’s mission is to “reduce irregular migration in the Asia and Pacific region,” according to its website.

Yet despite an estimated 25,000 migrants in desperate conditions boarding boats this year from Myanmar and Bangladesh, there has been little evidence of regional cooperation. No one answered the phone at the Bali Process regional support office in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Many of the boats were destined for Thailand, a way station for migrants whose final destination is often Malaysia.

The Myanmar government has rejected multilateral talks on the issue. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a former Thai representative to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, describes continued obstruction by Myanmar at regional meetings. The issue of the Rohingya is proposed but not discussed because Myanmar delegates argue that the Rohingya are not Southeast Asian people and that discussing the matter is interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

“I have been arguing that it doesn’t matter where they are from,” Ms. Sriprapha said. “To me, as a human rights worker, it doesn’t matter where they are from — they are now in our territory. They are entitled to our protection.”

Unlike in Europe, migration issues are often swept under the carpet in Southeast Asia because they are considered too contentious, Ms. Sriprapha said.

“The difference is that they can discuss it openly, not like us,” she said.

Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, has in recent years turned a blind eye to the illegal immigration of the refugees, who are also Muslim.

The United Nations refugee agency estimates that 620 people have died at sea during voyages from the Bay of Bengal since October.

The deaths were “primarily as a result of starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews,” the agency said in a report released last week.

The agency based its findings on interviews with migrants who reached Thailand and Malaysia.

“A few interviewees also told of entire boats sinking, but there was no way to verify such reports or if, and how many, lives were lost,” the agency said.

Half the people who took the journey this year originated from Myanmar, according to United Nations estimates. The other half came from Bangladesh, some of whom also identify as Rohingya and are living in refugee camps on the Bangladeshi side.

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