The Rohingya Refugees, Adrift
|A Rohingya child at a shelter in Lhoksukon, Indonesia. Credit Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images|
By The Editorial Board
May 13, 2015
Thousands of people, both Muslim Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis seeking jobs in Malaysia, have been abandoned at sea recently in Southeast Asia by smugglers fearing arrest as Thailand cracks down on human traffickers. At least 8,000 people are in peril, yet the Southeast Asian nations off whose shores they drift have been reluctant to save them.
Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya — which has been roundly condemned by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and human rights groups — is the root of this crisis. Its government has even blocked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from discussing the Rohingyas’ plight.
In the last three years, about 140,000 people in Myanmar have been driven from their homes by anti-Rohingya violence. The United Nations has warned that 40,000 Rohingyas are in camps within several hundred yards of the coast, with monsoon season arriving within weeks.
In the first quarter of this year, the United Nations estimated that 25,000 people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh. Just this week, more than 1,500 refugees from the two countries have made landfall in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Last June, the United States downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to the worst category in its annual human trafficking report. But the government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in Thailand in a coup a year ago, is only now cracking down on smugglers. After a mass grave at a smugglers’ camp was discovered in Thailand on May 1, the government acted quickly to arrest a suspect and three local officials. Bangladesh has also moved forcefully against smugglers, arresting more than 100 suspects in recent months.
The problem is that while governments are finally taking steps against smugglers, they have shown little mercy for their victims. Thailand has deported many Rohingyas back to Myanmar, where they face continued persecution and death threats. On Tuesday, the Indonesian Navy turned back a ship packed with refugees.
Given the magnitude of the crisis, Southeast Asian leaders must find a way out of this impasse. Meanwhile, the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have a moral responsibility to take emergency action to avert catastrophic loss of life and to offer protection to victims of human trafficking.