Southeast Asian leaders must do everything they can to protect refugees and prevent a repeat of this year’s “boat crisis” when some 200 refugees lost their lives at sea, 16 humanitarian agencies said today ahead of the 37th ASEAN Summit (12-15 November). With the monsoon period ending and a new “sailing season” approaching, women, men and children could soon again risk their lives on perilous journeys at sea.
Since January 2020, at least 2,400 refugees took to boats in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR . More than one-third (36%) of the refugees are children. The vast majority are Rohingya people leaving from camps in Bangladesh – many of them victims of human traffickers – who had earlier fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. Conditions on the boats are deplorable, with a lack of food, water and no healthcare, while survivors spoke of beatings and other abuse by traffickers on board. Some 200 people died or went missing at sea, according to UNHCR.
This year, a number of boats carrying refugees were denied disembarkation in countries including Malaysia and Thailand, and instead were pushed back out to sea. This is not only inhumane but also a violation of international Human Rights, Humanitarian and Maritime Laws. It furthermore violates ASEAN’s own commitments to protect refugees, as well as the international principle of non-refoulement. Thankfully, 2020 also saw some good disembarkation practices. In Indonesia, for example, local fishermen in Aceh helped disembark a boat carrying 297 people who had been stranded at sea for close to seven months. When States have rescued people in distress, governments have been assisted by humanitarian agencies.
As the new sailing season is approaching, ASEAN Member States must take a comprehensive and coordinated approach to protect vulnerable people. Governments in the region should work together to ensure better responsibility sharing for providing protection and hosting refugees, and to coordinate search-and-rescue efforts and allow safe disembarkation as outlined in the ASEAN Declaration on Cooperation in Search and Rescue of Persons and Vessels in Distress at Sea from 2010. In that respect, we also call on ASEAN Member States to adequately resource and make use of the ASEAN Trust Fund to Support Emergency Humanitarian and Relief Efforts that was established in 2016 in order to serve the victims of irregular migration in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand are furthermore all members of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, which encourages a regional and coordinated approach to disembarkation. We urge the Bali Process countries to make use of the Consultative Mechanism and Task Force on Planning and Preparedness to bring affected countries together to discuss a joint response to the refugee crisis.
States in the region must open their maritime borders to refugees, and under no circumstances push boats back to sea where lives could be at risk. Regional leaders are required to prepare their coast guards to abide by the Law of the Sea to assist those in distress, including refugees and migrants. It is equally crucial that governments provide humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, full and sustained access to refugees who have landed on their shores.
Ultimately, ASEAN leaders must acknowledge that while the root causes of the refugee crisis lie in Myanmar, the crisis requires a regional response. At the 37th ASEAN Summit, those attending must ensure an explicit focus on addressing the underlying drivers of the boat crisis. This must include more forthright dialogue with the Government of Myanmar to end long standing discrimination against Rohingya and ensuring the implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations. We also make an appeal to the Government of Myanmar to cooperate with international efforts to bring to justice those responsible for atrocity crimes against the Rohingya, including in 2017.