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Meeting on problem of Myanmar's boat people

Migrants, who were found at sea on a boat, collecting rainwater during a heavy rainfall at a temporary refuge camp in Myanmar on June 4, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

By Nirmal Ghosh
December 4, 2015

Thailand to host high-level meeting - including UN groups, diplomats - on Rohingya issue

Five men recently detained near Hat Yai are among the first of the seasonal wave of boat people from Myanmar expected in South-east Asia in the coming months.

The boat people identified as Rohingya - minority Muslims from Myanmar's Rakhine state - were found just as Thailand hosts a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean today in Bangkok. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia will be at the meeting, too.

The meeting of senior officials, plus UN organisations and diplomats based in Thailand, is a follow-up to the one in May that was called when thousands of boat people were coming ashore across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Fewer are expected this year; observers tracking departures say it is likely only 1,000-odd individuals left Rakhine state last month.

The drop has been been credited to Thailand's crackdown this year on human smuggling and trafficking syndicates. But while there may not be huge numbers, there will remain a steady flow, activists warn.

Host Thailand will propose a plan it has drafted - on a regional response to the boat people - for discussion and agreement.

"More needs to be done to solve this problem effectively and permanently," Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Wednesday. "Affected 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."

Sources say the plan leans towards ramping up enforcement - for example, search and rescue, the interception of boats and prosecution of smugglers. It also proposes campaigns to explain the risks to boat people and the penalties to smugglers.

But the plan apparently says little about protecting the hapless migrants. Ms Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, who closely tracks and studies the Rohingya issue, said: "The draft has nothing about protection. There is no mention of disembarkation and screening. I hope the meeting will address these issues."

The draft does advocate addressing root causes of the migration through development. Rakhine state is Myanmar's second-poorest.

But the Rohingya issue is politically touchy. Myanmar does not recognise the term "Rohingya" and insists the majority are historically recent Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh's Chittagong region. Most of the Rohingya are thus stateless, facing a dead end - and often take to the sea.

Asked what the UN refugee agency hoped would emerge from today's meeting, UNHCR spokesman Vivian Tan told The Straits Times: "We need more regional cooperation and it does seem, from recent meetings, that there is some consensus on regional cooperation as the only way forward."

But she cautioned: "This needs a comprehensive approach, and we hope it will put the migrants at the centre of it."

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