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FOCUS December 2015 Volume 82

New Boat People: The Rohingyas

Hurights Osaka

More than ninety thousand Rohingyas and Bangladeshis are believed to have left the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea on boats operated by smugglers since 2014. As of August 2015, more than a thousand of them are deemed to have died.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that1

  the most commonly-described route has boat passengers disembarking in the Ranong area of southern Thailand, followed by a day-long road trip to smugglers' camps towards the border with Malaysia.

  Conditions in the smugglers camp are horrific. People are held and abused until their relatives pay for their release. More than half the survivors interviewed by UNHCR since October reported that someone died in the smuggler's camp where they were held. Beatings are common and there are reports of rapes. Those who try to escape, risk being shot.

But some smugglers

  since last October [2014], […] have abandoned onshore camps in Thailand in favour of holding passengers for ransom at sea. Once payment is made, people are taken by fishing or speed boats directly to Malaysia. According to [one] NGO [non-governmental organization], The Arakan Project, currently several thousand people could be held – and dozens could have already died – in these 'offshore camps'."

There were reports of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis not receiving help from governments in countries where they were brought or where their boats landed, and even towing their boats [abandoned by smugglers] out to the sea.2 But subsequent reports in the latter part of 2015 show many of the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis being allowed to land in southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia (Aceh and North Sumatra provinces) with help being provided. There were Bangladeshis found in boats in the waters of Myanmar who were repatriated to Bangladesh by the Myanmarese government.

Among the Rohingyas who have been trafficked or smuggled by boat, there were children (some unaccompanied), women and men.

Intergovernmental Response

The discovery of mass graves in smugglers’ camps in the Thai-Malaysian border in May 2015 prompted inter-governmental response. The Thai government organized the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean on 29 May 2015 in Bangkok to address the issue. The affected countries agreed on the immediate measures to take such as3

1. Intensification of the “search and rescue operations to ensure safety of the irregular migrants at sea;” and

2. Exploration of “further means for identifying predictable disembarkation options and proper and harmonized reception arrangements for those rescued.”

They also agreed to

1. Identify “those with protection needs through effective screening processes, paying particular attention to the protection of the vulnerable groups, including women, children, and unaccompanied minors, who are often most affected;”

2. Strengthen “information and intelligence sharing mechanism to provide accurate data on whereabouts of migrants and vessels stranded at sea, and ensure timely response in terms of search and rescue operations;”

3. Establish a “mechanism or joint task force to administer and ensure necessary support, including resources as well as resettlement and repatriation options from the international community to countries that provide humanitarian assistance to the irregular migrants.”

The situation has improved to some extent since the meeting was held, with less boats being seen at sea with the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, but the problem has remained and “more needs to be done to solve [it] effectively and permanently.”4 This was how the Thai government saw the situation that led it to invite key countries and international agencies for a second meeting.

The Thai government organized the International Conference on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean on 4 December 2015 in Bangkok with the expectation to discuss, among other issues,

  the protection of migrants on-board, the establishment of an informal mechanism on law enforcement to address the problem of irregular migration and to dismantle smuggling and trafficking networks, the implementation of a joint information campaign along the migration path to convey real risks of irregular migration and to deter smuggling and trafficking syndicates with the seriousness of countries in the region to combat and eradicate this horrific crime. Also, measures to address the root causes of migration, including socio-economic development of at-risk communities...”5 

Representatives of the five affected countries, namely, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand met a day before the conference. Due to lack of information, there is no clarity on whether or not they discussed the root causes of the problem.6

New Wave of Boat People: Causes

While the affected countries and their partner countries and institutions agreed on a number of measures to address the “irregular migration” of the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, they have no agreement on the root causes of this issue.

The United Nations agencies saw the boat people phenomenon in Southeast Asia as similar to the problems faced by vulnerable people all over the world:7

  Grave events in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in recent days involving migrants and refugees – Rohingya and others – from Bangladesh and Myanmar confirm that vulnerable people around the world are moving in search of safety and dignity, fleeing persecution, abject poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and abuse.

The UNHCR “has long advocated for and stands ready to support concerted efforts to stabilize the situation [in Southeast Asia] through reconciliation, the realization of rights for all, socio-economic equality and addressing issues related to citizenship.”8

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) acted also on the problem but focused on its link to transnational crime, which is an important component of the problem. The Emergency ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (EAMMTC) concerning Irregular Movement of Persons in Southeast Asia, held less two months after the Bangkok meeting agreed to9 

  [C]onduct analysis and studies on the irregular movement of persons in the Southeast Asia and its connection with trafficking in persons and people smuggling as well as other forms of transnational crime with a view to assist ASEAN Member States in their efforts to address the long-term impact of this issue.

This stance was reiterated in the Joint Communique of the 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Kuala Lumpur on 4 August 2015.10 

The Thai government correctly stated that “[A]ffected countries in the region and relevant partners must work together to address the root causes as well as all the contributing factors along the way, in the spirit of international solidarity and shared responsibility.”11 The participating countries and institutions could agree on the more general issues of poverty but did not seem ready to discuss the very concrete issue of legal status of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and the existing conflict between them and the Buddhist residents of Rakhine state.

The UNHCR states that there are 138,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Rakhine state as of August 2015. The IDPs in Rakhine state include those who are “also people without citizenship.”12

Return or Resettle?

The International Office for Migration (IOM) has started an Assisted Voluntary Return Programme for Bangladeshi migrants. It has helped the return to Bangladesh of more than six hundred Bangladeshi migrants under this program. It estimates almost a thousand Bangladeshi migrants in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand who may be eligible for assisted voluntary return (AVR) support.13

IOM also supported the resettlement of approximately a hundred Rohingyas to the United States since 2013 through health assessments prior to travel and referral of particularly vulnerable cases.

New Boat People

The Rohingyas constitute the new boat people because they are fleeing from violence and conflict. This situation is forcing their women and children to leave Myanmar despite risks of death in riding the boats of the traffickers and human smugglers.

The affected countries’ recognition of protection needs of “vulnerable groups, including women, children, and unaccompanied minors”14  should lead to a recognition of what the fleeing Rohingyas want to do to gain safety and security.

Finally, the fleeing Rohingyas need countries that are willing to accept them as refugees who seek security, shelter, and possibly permanent resettlement.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.

 

Endnotes

1 “Some 25,000 risk sea crossings in Bay of Bengal over first quarter, almost double from year earlier,” News Stories, UNHCR, 8 May 2015, www.unhcr.org/554c9fae9.html.

2 See “Timeline of Events, South-East Asia Mixed Maritime Movements, April - June 2015 - Highlights,” UNHCR Regional Office for South-East Asia, www.unhcr.org/554c6a746.html. See also “A comprehensive people-oriented approach to the irregular movement of migrants and refugees in South East Asia” - Joint Statement by UNHCR, OHCHR, IOM and SRSG for Migration and Development: Search and rescue at sea, disembarkation, and protection of the human rights of refugees and migrants now imperative to save lives in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. (Press Releases, 19 May 2015), available at www.unhcr.org/555aee739.html.

3 “Press Releases: Summary - Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean 29 May 2015, Bangkok, Thailand,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, www.mfa.go.th/main/en/media-center/14/56880-Summary-Special-Meeting-on-Irregular-Migration-in.html.

4 “Press Releases: Thailand to host the Second Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, www.mfa.go.th/main/en/media-center/14/62560-Thailand-to-host-the-Second-Meeting-on-Irregular-M.html.

5 Ibid.

6 “Result of the 2nd Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean,”  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, www.mfa.go.th/main/en/media-center/28/62757-Result-of-the-2nd-Special-Meeting-on-Irregular-Mig.html.

7 See Joint Statement by UNHCR, OHCHR, IOM and SRSG for Migration and Development, op. cit.

8 News Stories, UNHCR, 8 May 2015, op. cit.

9 Chairman’s Statement, Emergency ASEAN Ministerial Meeting On Transnational Crime Concerning Irregular Movement Of Persons In Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2 July 2015, www.asean.org/images/2015/July/chairman_statement/ADOPTED%20Chairmans%20Statement%20of%20EAMMTC%20Concerning%20Irregular%20Movement%20of%20Persons%20in%20the%20Southeast%20Asia%20Region%20as%20of%202%20July%202015.pdf.

10 Paragraph 36 under the “Non-Traditional Security Issues” heading of the Joint Communique, 48th  ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 4th August 2015, page 6. Full document available at www.asean.org/images/2015/August/48th_amm/JOINT%20COMMUNIQUE%20OF%20THE%2048TH%20AMM-FINAL.pdf.

11 “Press Releases: Thailand to host the Second Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean,” op. cit.

12 “Myanmar Factsheet,” UNHCR, August 2015, www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendocPDFViewer.html?docid=50001cf99&query=Rakhine%202015.

13 Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, IOM Humanitarian Compendium, http://humanitariancompendium.iom.int/bangladesh-indonesia-malaysia-myanmar-thailand/2015.

14 “Press Releases: Summary - Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean 29 May 2015, Bangkok, Thailand,” op. cit.


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