South East Asia: Necessary U-turn on refugee boats still leaves thousands at risk
The decision by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to reverse an appalling policy of turning back boats carrying refugees and vulnerable migrants is a step in the right direction – but falls far short of the measures urgently needed to save thousands of lives still at risk at sea, or to address the root causes of the crisis, Amnesty International said.
“This is certainly good news for the people aboard those boats that manage to reach the safety of the shore – but it does nothing for the thousands still adrift at sea, with diminishing supplies of food and water, or for any more who may follow them,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director. “Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia cannot shirk their duty as a states party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to provide maritime search and rescue operations to save lives.”
In a joint statement, Indonesia and Malaysia have said they will provide temporary shelter for up to 7,000 people still at sea, believed to be mainly Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis. The shelter would only be provided for up to a year, and on condition that the international community would help with repatriation or resettlement efforts.
Temporary shelter is a first step, and is better than no protection at all. However, it is far from adequate, and risks undermining the international protection system.
“Temporary shelter is a first step, and is better than no protection at all,” said Richard Bennett. “However, it is far from adequate, and risks undermining the international protection system. People claiming asylum must be able to access refugee status determination procedures, in safety and in dignity. Refugees and vulnerable migrants must not be criminalized for irregular entry, nor can they be returned to countries where their life or rights are at risk.”
The statement followed emergency talks about the regional crisis on Wednesday, attended by foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. There had been strong international criticism following reports that boats seeking to reach their shores had been driven back to sea, leaving those on board at risk of death.
Thailand did not sign on to the commitment to provide temporary shelter, citing domestic legal constraints. But it has pledged to not push back boats stranded in its waters, and to provide humanitarian assistance to those aboard.
“The people aboard the boats are in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. Turning them away was not only an affront to human decency, it was a violation of the principle of non-refoulement – a tenant of customary international law,” said Richard Bennett.
On 29 May, Thailand will host a regional summit bringing together key stakeholders – including the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, as well as Myanmar and UN agencies – to discuss the regional crisis.
“Next week’s conference offers an important opportunity to address the root causes of this crisis, including the systemic discrimination in law, policy and practice against the Rohingya and other minority populations in Myanmar,” said Richard Bennett.
In the last few weeks, increasing numbers of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have arrived by boat in Malaysia and Indonesia. A crackdown on irregular arrivals in Thailand seems to have forced smugglers and traffickers to look for new routes. The International Organization for Migration believes that 6,000 people may still be on boats close to Thailand.
The thousands of people who have fled Bangladesh and Myanmar include vulnerable migrants, refugees such as Muslim Rohingya fleeing discrimination and violence in Myanmar, and victims of human trafficking.
Many are desperate enough to put their own lives at risk by braving dangerous journeys at sea in order to escape unbearable conditions at home.