Bangkok summit over refugee crisis (The Straits Times)


Growing alarm as thousands feared stranded at sea with no food, water

BANGKOK – Thailand yesterday said it would host a regional summit on May 29 to deal with an “unprecedented” human trafficking crisis.

Officials from 15 countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as Australia and the United States, will be attending the one-day meeting.

The announcement came as South-east Asian governments faced international appeals to rescue thousands of migrants believed to be stranded at sea without food and water, with warnings that many may die if action was not taken.

The escalating alarm over the region’s refugee crisis came as Indonesia’s navy said it had turned away a boat carrying hundreds of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh to an uncertain fate.

Nearly 2,000 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have swum ashore, been rescued or intercepted off Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days after Thailand – a key stop on human-smuggling routes – launched a crackdown on the trade.

The Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights group, has said as many as 8,000 people may be adrift and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said search-and-rescue operations are urgently needed.

“It needs a regional effort… we don’t have the capacity to search for them, but governments do, they have boats and satellites,” said Mr Joe Lowry, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the IOM, a 157-member-state intergovernmental organisation.

He told AFP those still at sea may be in a “very bad condition or even dead” if not found soon.

Thousands of impoverished Muslim Rohingya – a minority unwanted by Myanmar’s government – and Bangladeshis undertake a perilous sea and land trafficking route through Thailand and into Malaysia every year.

The recent wave of arrivals on Malaysian and Indonesian shores is believed to be caused by human-smugglers dumping their cargo as Thailand has moved to crush the trade after discovering dozens of migrant remains in secret jungle camps earlier this month.

The crackdown may have left thousands of desperate migrants on rickety boats with no food and water as traffickers search for new routes to evade authorities.

“It appears they are holding people captive at sea because they are afraid to disembark,” said Ms Vivian Tan, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok. She added there was “definitely a need for countries in the region to come together to see how best to” deal with the situation, and that the UNHCR was willing to help.

Indonesia underlined the problem by turning away a vessel that arrived on Monday off the coast of its north-western Aceh region with an estimated 400 migrants on board.

A day earlier, 573 men, women and children struggled ashore to Aceh from a different boat, with officials saying many were in poor health. Indonesian navy spokesman Manahan Simorangkir told AFP that the boat with 400 aboard had been towed out of Indonesian waters.

“We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,” he said. “We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia or Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”

Both Thailand and Malaysia have said they may set up camps and detention centres to shelter the growing number of refugees arriving on their shores.

“We have room at the detention centre now, but if it is insufficient the ministry has the power to declare a new detention centre,” Malaysia’s deputy interior minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told Reuters.

“This is the first time there is such a big influx of people coming into the country.”

In Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported that national police chief Somyot Pumpunmuang proposed setting up official camps, although he conceded the plan might only attract more refugees.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, REUTERS