Rohingya drowning at sea. Asia’s leaders are to blame

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In early January, a boat carrying 185 Rohingya refugees washed up on the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. They had spent weeks at sea in appalling conditions, fleeing cramped and overcrowded camps in Bangladesh in search of a better life. More than half were women and children.

Unfortunately, they are far from alone. Since November last year, at least three boats have landed in Aceh after equally perilous journeys, carrying hundreds of refugees, killing at least 20 people at sea. Thousands of Rohingya, including women and children, will have taken refuge in dangerous boat trips by 2022, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In Aceh, it is often local fishermen, driven by compassion for desperate refugees, who have taken it upon themselves to rescue boats stranded in the Andaman Sea. As a Rohingya who has spent most of my life campaigning to end the genocide against our people, I could not be more grateful to the Acehnese for their selflessness and courage.

At the same time, it is regrettable that ordinary people have had to step in to do what governments in the region are supposed to do. From India to Indonesia, states in South and Southeast Asia have for years turned a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya boat people, denying refugees the chance to land on their shores and even pushing their ships back out to sea.

This is illegal – a violation of the non-refoulement principle under international law prohibits countries from returning people to where they are at risk of serious human rights violations. It is also immoral behavior and regional states must change course immediately to avoid further loss of life at sea.

Rohingya people have taken to boats from Myanmar for years to escape the genocide we face in our native state of Rakhine. In recent years, more and more refugees from Bangladesh risk their lives on dangerous sea voyages. Nearly one million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh.

Although the government of Bangladesh has generously provided a safe haven for refugees, the camps are cramped and overcrowded and Rohingya have almost no education or decent job opportunities. A boat trip is often a last, desperate attempt to build a dignified life elsewhere.

In 2015, the Asian “boat crisis” made headlines, when hundreds of refugees lost their lives at sea as governments cracked down on human trafficking networks. After a relative pause in sea travel, numbers have been picking up again in recent years. In 2022, UNHCR estimates, at least 1,920 Rohingya took to boats – a sharp increase from 287 in 2021.

At least 119 people were reported dead or missing last year, not including another 180 people believed to have died after their boat went missing in December.

Conditions at sea are appalling. Survivors have described being trapped for months on cramped boats, with little or no access to food, water or medicine. They are often assaulted and extorted by human traffickers, who in many cases have charged refugees with their savings for deck space.

While members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional governments have pledged not to abandon refugees at sea, many of them – including India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – have in fact sealed their borders to refugees. Sometimes they have provided minimal food and medical care, only to push boats back out to sea.

The many deaths in 2022 and the harrowing stories of those who survived should be a wake-up call for regional states to take concrete and coordinated action once and for all. ASEAN should take a collective approach to maritime refugee operations that focuses on search and rescue operations and share responsibility across borders. It is critical that no one fleeing persecution be denied entry; instead, refugees should be given the shelter and medical care they need, while their right to seek asylum should be respected.

At the same time, member states of the Bali Process – an international mechanism set up in 2002 to co-coordinate action against maritime refugees and human trafficking – should ensure that they make use of the frameworks established to help those fleeing violence and death. All 10 members of ASEAN and South Asian countries such as India are part of the Bali process. In 2016, after the “boat crisis”, members adopted the Bali Declaration, pledging to strengthen cooperation on search and rescue and finding legal pathways for refugees. So far, however, that has remained little more than a paper promise.

At the moment, regional countries are also refusing to face the cause of this crisis: the treatment of the Rohingya in their homeland, Myanmar.

As long as the genocide against the Rohingya continues, our people will feel compelled to risk their lives to find safety and dignity elsewhere. Even ASEAN members who have criticized Myanmar’s military since the 2021 coup attempt are doing business with Myanmar, which helps fund the military and the crimes they commit against us. Instead, they should support all international judicial processes to hold Myanmar officials responsible for crimes against the Rohingya accountable.

So far, Aceh’s fishermen have shown the humanitarian leadership that ASEAN has eschewed. All Rohingya are grateful for their compassion. But as long as ASEAN members turn a blind eye to the causes and consequences of the Rohingya crisis, the boats will keep coming and the suffering will continue.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.



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