The spectacle of thousands of desperate Rohingya Muslim “boat people” being denied landfall in Southeast Asia has laid bare the region’s religious and ethnic prejudices as well as its fears of being swamped by an influx of migrants.
An estimated 6,000 or more such migrants are stranded at sea in Southeast Asia. Most of the people on the overcrowded and unseaworthy boats are thought to belong to the 1.3 million-strong Rohingya minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Others are believed to be from Bangladesh.
Reuters reports that while nearly 800 migrants on one boat were brought ashore Friday in Indonesia, other boats crammed full of people were turned away.
Such refusals underline “the hardening of Southeast Asia governments’ stance on the boatloads of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar,” Reuters says. The Rohingya practice a blend of Sunni and Sufi Islam.
‘No Stomach’ For Migrants
At best, the migrants have been received with resignation — at worst with contempt — even by the region’s Muslim nations. As we’ve reported recently, many are victims of human traffickers.
The Thai and Malaysian navies have both turned away refugee boats in recent days. Indonesia has taken in some migrants but is now refusing to accept them.
Predominantly Buddhist Thailand has been battling an Islamist insurgency in its south for decades and has “no stomach” for bringing in more Muslims, says Lex Rieffel, a nonresident senior fellow and expert on Southeast Asia at the Brookings Institution.
In any case, the country has a long history of dealing with unwanted migrants fleeing conflict in Cambodia and has no desire to repeat that, Rieffel says.
“If they break the law and land in Thailand, how can we take care of them?” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters Thursday. “Where will the budget come from? That money will need to come from Thai people’s taxes, right?”
For Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority countries, the issue is less clear-cut, Rieffel says, but they are also interested in avoiding the appearance that they are opening the gates.
“We will try to prevent them from entering our territory, otherwise it will create social issues,” Reuters quotes Indonesia’s military chief Gen. Moeldoko as telling reporters. “If we open up access, there will be an exodus here.”
“What do you expect us to do?” Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar was quoted by The Guardian as saying. “We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.”
Michael Buehler, a lecturer in comparative politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, points out that Indonesia has taken in several hundred Rohingya migrants in Aceh Province. Even so, Indonesia — like Thailand and Malaysia — also fears “an uncontrolled influx.”
‘A Horrible Mess’
Australia, which has dealt with its own influx of economic migrants fleeing Indonesia, says it is providing millions of dollars in urgent humanitarian aid to help cope with the problem.
“There are no easy answers on any aspect of this horrible mess,” Rieffel says.
The United States, for its part, has called on regional governments to work together to save lives, but State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke stresses: “This is a regional issue. It needs a regional solution in short order.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Thai counterpart Friday to urge Bangkok to give the refugees temporary shelter, according to the department.
The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, has implored the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to do something. Rieffel says that’s unlikely to happen.
Unlike the European Union’s response to migrants fleeing the North African coast on boats across the Mediterranean, he says, “the reality is that ASEAN is not the U.S. or the European Union.”
ASEAN is “not a regional body and it doesn’t have a budget or a mechanism for dealing with this situation,” Rieffel adds.
And some experts say that simply towing refugees back out to sea may be illegal under international maritime law.
“These boats carrying overcrowded refugees and migrants are typically rickety wooden trawlers and hardly seaworthy,” Eric Paulson, executive director for the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty, tells Bloomberg. “Turning or towing these boats away is as good as signing their death warrant as the occupants are normally starving, dehydrated, sickly and in dire need of immediate assistance.”
Lawrence B. Brennan, a professor of admiralty and international law at Fordham University, agrees. “Historically, maritime law has the concept of ‘port of refuge’ for ships and people in peril at sea. There is a long-standing tradition of providing aid and comfort to people who are in danger,” he says.
But enforcement is “murky,” says Brennan, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps. Jurisdiction is national, not international.
Then there’s the issue of time: “The courts have time. Refugees don’t,” he says.