Malaysia, Indonesia To Let 'Boat People' Come Ashore Temporarily
Malaysia and Indonesia said on Wednesday they would offer shelter to 7,000 “boat people” adrift at sea in rickety boats but, anxious not to encourage a fresh influx, made clear that their assistance was temporary and they would take no more.
More than 3,000 migrants have landed so far this month in Malaysia and Indonesia. Together with Thailand, they have opted for a “not-in-my-backyard” policy in response, pushing away many boats that approached their shores despite appeals from the United Nations to take them in.
While the latest statement signaled a shift in policy by Malaysia and Indonesia that would allow the migrants to come ashore, they underlined that the international community also had a responsibility to help them deal with the crisis.
The migrants are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis – men, women and children who fled persecution and poverty at home or were abducted by traffickers, and now face sickness and starvation at sea.
“What we have clearly stated is that we will take in only those people in the high sea,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said. “But under no circumstances would we be expected to take each one of them if there is an influx of others.”
Malaysia and Indonesia said in a joint statement in Kuala Lumpur that they would offer “resettlement and repatriation”, a process that would be “done in a year by the international community”.
The United Nations, which has been calling on governments in the region to rescue those drifting at sea, welcomed the move and urged that people be brought to shore “without delay”.
THAILAND OPTS OUT
Aman said temporary shelters would be set up, but not in Thailand, a favored transit point for the migrants who try to make their way to work illegally in Malaysia.
Thai officials have said authorities will check on migrants at sea and will allow the sick to come to shore for medical attention, but the government has stopped short of saying whether it would allow other migrants to disembark.
Thailand, whose foreign minister also attended the meeting in the Malaysian capital, has called a regional conference on the issue in Bangkok for May 29.
“We maintain our stance that we are a transit country. In the meeting we said that our country has more problems than theirs,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said.
“On whether we will accept or not accept (more) migrants you have to wait until May 29 when various organizations and countries will meet,” he told reporters in Bangkok.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch welcomed the joint statement, which he said “should mark the end of the region’s push back policies against Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people”, but added it was “disturbing” that “Thailand was missing in action”.
Hours before the ministers met to discuss a crisis on which the confrontation-shy Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has barely commented, hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshi landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province.
“We have to find ways to resettling them as soon as possible without creating a new moral hazard,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, political adviser to Indonesia’s vice president, told reporters in Jakarta.
“If migrants start thinking of Indonesia as a transit point or as having a higher chance of getting resettled, that would create another problem that we have to prevent.”
She said the main responsibility lay with Myanmar, which the United Nations said last week must stop discrimination against Rohingya Muslims to end a pattern of migration from the corner of the Bay of Bengal into the Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait.
The United States echoed these calls, with a senior State Department official pointing to conditions in Rakhine state as driving Rohingyas to flee.
“Ultimately (Myanmar) must take steps to address the root causes that drove these people (to sea) and we need long term sustainable solutions, development, protection of basic human rights if we’re really going to answer the problem,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a conference in Jakarta.
Blinken is due to visit Myanmar on Thursday to discuss the unfolding crisis with its government.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Myanmar terms the Rohingya “Bengalis”, a name most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.
“We have a big desire to help but this is not just Indonesia’s responsibility. This is mainly the responsibility of the Myanmar government which should be protecting all its citizens and not forcing some of them to flee,” Anwar said.
Myanmar’s foreign ministry said in a statement published by state media on Wednesday that the government was making “serious efforts” to prevent people smuggling and illegal migration.
This included patrolling by the navy and air force in Myanmar’s territorial waters, it said, adding that Myanmar was prepared to work with the international community to alleviate the suffering of smuggled victims.