No return to persecution (The New Nation (Bangladesh))

Thailand is going to hold a special regional meeting on the flow of migrants through the Bay of Bengal today (Friday) as it grapples with an “unprecedented” human-trafficking crisis. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque is now in Bangkok to attend the 17-nation regional meeting, an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told this reporter on Thursday.

“Dhaka will stress the need for resolving the crisis concerning Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar in the special regional meeting, the official said. A five-member Bangladesh delegation in the meeting will propose for a comprehensive approach and mount pressure on Myanmar to settle the Rohingya issue. According to Thai Foreign Ministry, the special regional meeting is an urgent call for the region to work together to address the unprecedented increase of irregular migration.

Earlier, the Prime Minister of Thailand Prayut Chan-o-cha had called for a summit on the problem. The special regional meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean will include representatives from Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Lao PDR, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand.

Apart from these countries, observers from the United States and Switzerland, and senior officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will also attend the meeting. The meeting is intended to be a “forum for exchange of information and intelligence on the current situation on irregular migration by sea and its challenges, as well as to demonstrate strong commitment to strengthen cooperation and foster more concrete actions.

Over 3, 000 desperate, hungry people have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, drawing international attention to a crisis in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch on Thursday said governments gathering in Bangkok on Friday to discuss the Southeast Asia boat people crisis should reach binding agreements to save people at sea, permit them to disembark without conditions, and ensure unimpeded access for United Nations agencies to protect the rights of asylum seekers.

The governments should also demand that Myanmar and Bangladesh take specific steps to end human rights abuses against the Rohingya that are causing them to flee on dangerous boats to escape persecution. Regional governments should work with the United Nations and others to agree on binding solutions to this human tragedy not sweep it under the rug as they have done for years, said Brad Adams, Asia Director.

He said the ending of human rights abuses in the source countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh needs to be matched by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with support from other countries, taking humanitarian action to receive and protect refugees fleeing persecution. Over the past 15 months, international agencies estimate that as many as 88, 000 men, women, and children have travelled from Bangladesh and Myanmar by boats to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Many of these are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma, although a significant number are also Bangladeshi nationals. The participating governments should accept international offers to provide search and rescue support and seek ways to better coordinate search and rescue efforts, share intelligence, and pool resources. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia should agree to take proactive efforts to mobilize their marine search and rescue operations to seek out the remaining boats possibly still at sea.

Transparent, impartial, and professional assessments of individuals who arrive on land or are rescued at sea are needed to determine who is entitled to refugee protection, who should receive services as a trafficking victim, and how appropriate services should be delivered. UNHCR should be permitted to exercise its mandate in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia none of which are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention to screen boat arrivals for refugee status and other protection needs, Adams said.

These governments should abide by UNHCR refugee status determinations and scrupulously ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not forcibly returned to persecution or other serious harm and that no one is prevented from fleeing threats to their life or freedom. This is especially important in the case of Burma, where Rohingya have been targets of persecution for decades, and whose denial of citizenship rights makes any return impossible as long as Burma denies their national identity.

While Malaysia and Indonesia recently agreed to allow boat people to land on their soil, the Thai government has thus far refused to allow boat people to land on Thai soil. The Thai government should commit to allow boat people to disembark in safety and dignity and grant access to UNHCR to assess their protection needs.

The special meeting should reject any variation of so-called help along policies that result in stranding boat people in deadly conditions or shifting responsibilities to other countries;Exert pressure on Myanmar as the main source of the problem. Call on Myanmar officials to immediately end the repressive measures and denial of basic rights that have driven Rohingya to flee their native Rakhine state over many years.

The meeting should exert pressure on Myanmar to admit that Rohingya should be considered citizens of Myanmar whose rights should be respected, and end all discriminatory policies against them. The national government’s denial of the status of the Rohingya only makes solutions harder to formulate. Myanmar should amend the 1982 Citizenship Act and do away with discriminatory restrictions on the right to movement, livelihoods, right to own property, right to marriage and have children, and other basic rights that all persons of Burma should enjoy.

The Bangladesh government should cease its own publicly acknowledged policy of engaging in pushbacks of Rohingya to Rakhine state and recognize them as refugees deserving protection and support services. Dhaka should also agree to accept international offers of assistance, previously rejected, to provide basic health, education, and other services for Rohingya and its own citizens residing in the same border region with Burma so no one will feel compelled to get on boats.

“This regional meeting will only be a success if every government commits to effective search and rescue operations, meeting the protection needs of refugees, prosecuting traffickers, and resolving the root causes that drive these desperate people onto boats, Adams said.

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