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Refugee plan needed now

October 19, 2015

The monsoon season is ending in western Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, and that foreshadows a problem. Reports from Bangladesh and Rakhine state of Myanmar are already serving up a warning: traffickers and their prospective Rohingya clients are gearing up to board boats and strike out again for Southeast Asia. A new wave of migrants appears certain.

Neither Thailand nor its affected neighbours appear prepared. Since it is unlikely the human traffickers or the desperate Rohingya will call off their plans, it is past time for the government and other countries to prepare.

Some of their planning will, by necessity, have to be kept secret; governments must not create conditions to attract illegal migrants. Almost all of last year's tragedies and troubles can be prevented, but if nothing changes, then nightmares will repeat.

One must put the blame for this state of affairs where it belongs. The authorities in Myanmar, up to and including President Thein Sein, have not been helpful in stemming the mass migration of the Royingha. Nay Pyi Taw, against all international law and practice, insists that Rohingya who have lived for generations in Rakhine state are not citizens. This basic error has led to the marginalisation of the Rohingya people, their exclusion from almost all opportunity and their descent into poverty, creating the desire to go somewhere, anywhere, to improve their lot in life.

Neither fellow Asean members, including Thailand, nor the world community has effectively called Myanmar to account for this reprehensible, but repairable, problem. Because of Nay Pyi Taw's refusal to legally recognise the Rohingya, it is impossible to ensure the safe repatriation of the Rohingya migrants to the homes they have just fled. As such we have an unbreakable cycle of migration and forced acceptance of camps by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Amnesty International called last year's migration crisis a "hellish reality". Early indications at this time are that this has not deterred the traffickers. Nor, according to witnesses, has it dissuaded the Rohingya, who remain desperate enough to put their lives on the line in rickety boats to try to find safe harbour in another country.

Vivian Tan, the main spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last week the number of Rohingya migrants tripled from 2011 to 63,000 last year. "That trend is likely to continue," she told The Guardian newspaper. The only hope to stem that flow is to address the root causes, that is convince Nay Pyi Taw to change its policies. There seems little chance of that. For one thing, the country is deeply invested in a November election.

Most Rohingya migrants do not wish to stay in Thailand, but the human trafficking routes pass through this country. Last year, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered steps to combat the trafficking. That could "reward" Thailand with a promotion on the US Trafficking in Persons list. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai this past week met and spoke to the senior US analyst working on that list, Kari Johnstone.

There can be little doubt that there are still plenty of human traffickers willing to exploit the Rohingya and Thai hospitality. Last year's crackdown can only mean the traffickers will become warier. The discovery of jungle "killing fields" where migrants were held as hostages means more forceful action against illegal migration must be taken. To "be prepared", like the Boy Scouts motto, means the government adopting measures now, not tomorrow.

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Rohingya Exodus