South East Asia: ‘Boat people’ crisis summit an opportunity that must not be missed

Regional governments must take immediate action to save lives and address the root causes of the South East Asian refugees and migrant crisis, Amnesty International said ahead of a key summit in Thailand on Friday.

“The Bangkok summit is an opportunity to develop a genuine regional effort to address all the many dimensions of the crisis in line with international human rights law that must not be missed,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director.

“We have seen thousands of people crammed onto boats with little or no food or water, while governments have been slow to provide shelter or other basic humanitarian assistance. There clearly needs to be immediate action.”

We have seen thousands of people crammed onto boats with little or no food or water, while governments have been slow to provide shelter or other basic humanitarian assistance. There clearly needs to be immediate action.

Richard Bennett, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Director

Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have taken crucial first steps by offering temporary humanitarian assistance and reversing appalling policies of turning back boats. However, efforts must be stepped up to address all forms of migration while respecting human rights. Governments have a responsibility to ensure legal and safe routes of migration.

“Countries must develop a common set of policies to ensure that refugees and migrants – including people fleeing persecution – are protected, and not criminalized or simply left to fend for themselves,” said Richard Bennett.

Representatives of 17 countries will gather in Bangkok on 29 May to discuss the current asylum seeker and migrant crisis in South East Asia. Approximately 3,500 people have over the past weeks landed in Malaysia and Indonesia or returned to Myanmar.

In an open letter this week, Amnesty International has urged governments to take immediate steps to address not only the current crisis, but also the underlying conditions that have caused it.

“The thousands who have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia must be ensured safety and dignity, including the shelter, food, water, clothing, health care and protection they need. Claims for asylum should be fairly processed and under no circumstances should people be returned to or sent to countries where their lives are at risk,” said Richard Bennett.

“People should not be detained solely on the basis of their method of arrival in a country. Prolonged periods of detention and uncertainty have a damaging impact on asylum seekers’ mental health, as we have seen through Australia’s cruel refugee policies. South East Asian countries must not repeat these mistakes.”

Amnesty International is urging all governments to take immediate steps to address the root causes of the crisis, which are driving people to flee in the first place.

A large proportion of those fleeing by boat appear to be Muslim Rohingya, a minority that has faced decades of institutionalised discrimination in Myanmar. Waves of violence between Muslims and Buddhists dating back to 2012 has left tens of thousands of people – mainly Rohingya – displaced in Rakhine state, where they live in camps in squalid conditions. Tens of thousands of others are believed to have fled across the Bay of Bengal by boat since the 2012 violence.

“Many thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar are desperate enough to risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys to escape the conditions they face at home. Myanmar’s response so far has been one of denial – even that the Rohingya even exist. This cannot be the basis on which to proceed,” said Richard Bennett.

“The international community must urge Myanmar to end systemic discrimination against the Rohingya, starting with granting them citizenship and repealing all other discriminatory laws.”

Background / recommendations

Amnesty International urges countries attending the summit on 29 May 2015 to:

  • Co-ordinate search and rescue operations to locate and assist boats in distress;
  • Allow all boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants to land safely in the nearest country and not push them back, threaten or otherwise intimidate them;
  • Provide or ensure the provision of the immediate humanitarian needs of refugees and migrants including food, water, shelter and health care;
  • Ensure that people claiming asylum are able to access fair refugee status determination procedures;
  • Respect the rule of non-refoulement, by ensuring that people are not transferred to any place, including their country of origin, where their lives, and freedom from persecution and torture are at risk;
  • Ensure that individuals are not criminalised, detained or punished solely for their method of arrival in the country;
  • For those countries which have not yet done so – ratify the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol and the UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and implement these instruments in law, policy and practice; 
  • Work closely with UNHCR, the agency with the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people and the technical expertise on refugee status determination; and
  • Investigate all allegations of human trafficking and bring those responsible through law enforcement measures, governed by human rights law and standards, and ensure that victims have access to an effective remedy.

Additionally, Myanmar must end all discrimination in law, policy and practice against the Rohingya, and in particular, ensure they have equal access to citizenship rights. Myanmar must also ensure free and unimpeded access to Rakhine state to humanitarian actors, the United Nations, international human rights organizations and journalists.

A copy of the open letter can be found here: