To save Rohingya people stranded at sea, the Bali Process mustn’t delay any longer

By Usman Hamid and Sam Klintworth

After hundreds of Rohingya people died at sea in 2015, regional leaders pledged to “learn from past crises” and not repeat the same catastrophic mistakes. But as boats remain stranded yet again, it appears those governments have learned nothing.

Last week saw an exception to the rule. One boat, carrying hundreds of people, approached Malaysia’s shores. Unusually, it wasn’t turned away. “Deportation was not conducted,” the authorities explained, “as the boat was damaged.” They added that a woman’s dead body was found on board, and that 269 people were placed in detention.

As boats remain stranded yet again, it appears governments in the region have learned nothing.

Hundreds more Rohingya people are believed to be adrift on cramped fishing boats between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, trying and failing to find a welcoming shore and a safe country. Their ordeal, starved of food and water, has lasted months and shows no sign of ending. Despite acknowledging that most of the people it rescued last week could barely walk, Malaysia has since pushed another boat back.

The Bali Process’ deadly silence

Leaders could have convened an urgent meeting under a regional mechanism called the Bali Process, co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia, and taken life-saving action accordingly. But months later, Bali Process members are still only discussing whether they even want a formal meeting.

At a time when regional cooperation is needed more than ever, the treatment of these women, men and children is an abject failure. Again and again, governments invoke COVID-19 as a reason for aggressively warding off the boats from their coasts back into desolate open waters. In doing so, they are claiming that a life-threatening pandemic justifies leaving hundreds more to die.

Like COVID-19, the issue of Rohingya people seeking safety requires effective and decisive regional cooperation. It does not make sense to tackle one crisis at the other’s expense. And like COVID-19, there is nothing to gain by ignoring the calls for help, or wishing the problem away: it will only put more lives at risk. By failing to help, governments are also undermining the bedrock of international cooperation: their obligations under international law, including the search and rescue of those in distress at sea, and protecting the human rights of refugees arriving on their shores.

Then came the 2015 crisis and the pledges of “never again”. Today regional governments are handling the emergency in different ways, but all of them are inhumane.

Rohingya people continue to flee violence and persecution from their homes in Myanmar, as well as from the hardships of refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. In recent weeks, the boats have tried to reach Malaysia and were also spotted off the coasts of Thailand.

In previous years, thousands more Rohingya people attempted similar journeys, some travelling even further to Indonesia, India and Australia.

Then came the 2015 crisis and the pledges of “never again”.

Today regional governments are handling the emergency in different ways, but all of them are inhumane.

After the 2015 tragedy, cruelty persists

After rescuing a previous vessel in early April, Malaysia boasted about its military efforts to push more boats away. Indonesia has paraded its border patrol ships and helicopters, threatening the same cruel push-back to any boat that enters their waters. Both cited COVID-19, among other concerns, to justify their actions.  Australia and Thailand are staying largely silent.

Nothing is known about conditions on the boats. Relatives are without news: cell phones are out of reach, and long out of battery.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, already hosts nearly one million Rohingya people in its refugee camps along the Myanmar border. The Bangladesh government has done the most in recent weeks to rescue returning survivors – but it has indicated that any further arrivals may be towed to Bhasan Char, a remote silt island, which the UN has yet to deem habitable. Any experiment which involves keeping refugees on the island away from families – as well as humanitarian and protection services – could amount to arbitrary detention.

Repeated, urgent calls for search and rescue operations, most recently from the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are going unheeded.

Nothing is known about conditions on the boats. Relatives are without news: cell phones are out of reach, and long out of battery.

All that we know comes from the testimonies of those who recently survived such journeys. And what they tell us is this: for many, the rescue came too late.

One woman said she witnessed more than 50 people die on a ship of nearly 400 people she was stranded on for months. Traffickers, she says, ran both engines to try to conceal the sound of splashing water when bodies were thrown into the sea.

A humane, regional response to Rohingya suffering

As the world envisions a ‘new normal’ after COVID-19, a crucial test will be how to better protect the most marginalised in our societies. The treatment of the Rohingya is one such test.

But right now, the pandemic response is putting many of them in greater danger – and not just for those stranded at sea.

Policies on immigration detention – which have targeted Rohingya – continue to endanger their health and lives in overcrowded detention centres in Malaysia and Thailand, where they face an acute risk of contracting COVID-19. Those in Bangladesh’s refugee camps are also singularly at risk of infection.

The persistent suffering of the Rohingya is not an issue that can be resolved overnight: but it is one the region can address humanely together.

Meanwhile Myanmar continues to deny the Rohingya people justice for crimes against humanity its military have committed against them, and continues to impose apartheid conditions on the Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. Many of them are denied healthcare, all while the pandemic rages.

The persistent suffering of the Rohingya is not an issue that can be resolved overnight: but it is one the region can address humanely together.

Regional governments can begin by triggering the urgently awaited dialogue under the Bali Process and agree ways to save those stranded at sea, as well as those who attempt these dangerous boat journeys in future.

Perhaps even the sliver of good news at the start of this piece might turn out to be an illusion: in the past couple of days, media reported that the Malaysian authorities were considering floating that boat and its 269 survivors back out to sea.

This would be a heinous move, which would breach the most basic tenets of international law and shows with ever-increasing urgency why a regional dialogue is necessary. If COVID-19 can teach the region – and its leaders – anything about cooperation and solidarity, it is that none of us are safe until everyone is safe.

Usman Hamid is the Director of Amnesty International Indonesia

Sam Klintworth is the Director of Amnesty International Australia

A version of this article originally appeared in Nikkei Asian Review.