$9.2m more in aid to address S-E Asian boat people crisis (The Straits Times)

Pledge from US, Australia comes as key countries agree to fight human trafficking

THE US and Australia yesterday pledged an extra $9.2 million in aid to help address the South-east Asian boat people crisis, as key countries agreed to combat human trafficking, rescue stranded migrants and improve their living conditions.

In particular, delegate countries to a Bangkok meeting on the crisis accepted the recommendation for “areas of origin” to work towards “enhancing a sense of security and belonging, promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services such as housing, education and healthcare”.

Myanmar, a key source country for Rohingya migrants who are denied citizenship on its soil, agreed to the recommendations, said Mr Norachit Sinhaseni, Thailand’s permanent secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who chaired the meeting.

But the question of citizenship was not discussed, he said. Neither was the term “Rohingya” used much, a reflection of the sensitivity of the issue which has caused a prolonged exodus of Rohingya from the country.

It is not clear how the recommendations would be followed up, though participants agreed to pursue further talks in regional groups like Asean.

The meeting brought together 17 mostly Asian states, the US, Switzerland and groups such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Thousands of Muslim Rohingya, fleeing decrepit living conditions and sectarian violence, leave Myanmar every year and join economic migrants from Bangladesh in rickety boats headed towards Malaysia. Large numbers fall victim to traffickers who torture them to extract ransoms.

A recent Thai crackdown on trafficking threw the syndicates into disarray, causing boatloads of migrants to be abandoned at sea. More than 3,500 migrants have landed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, with possibly thousands more still stranded at sea.

The United States committed US$3 million (S$4.05 million) to the IOM while Australia pledged a further A$5 million (S$5.15 million), after earlier promising A$6 million – for humanitarian assistance to Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine state – where the Rohingya are clustered.

Earlier in the day, Myanmar had delivered a sharp rebuke to the UNHCR for calling on it to assume full responsibility “to all its people”. In response, Mr Htin Lynn, director-general of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “you cannot single out my country”. Every country has its own challenges, he said. “Some issues fall within domestic jurisdiction.”

Given that no countries sent ministers to the meeting, most participants had expected a modest outcome.

Mr Dicky Komar, director of human rights and humanitarian affairs of Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, told The Straits Times: “It’s not easy for Myanmar. But the fact that they are here is a good sign that they are willing to engage on this sensitive issue.”

He urged Asean to play a greater role in this growing problem, saying: “We don’t want Asean to be split on this regional issue.”

Malaysia and Indonesia, which agreed on May 20 to provide temporary shelter to rescued boat people, called for greater international assistance, including speedier resettlement.

Bangladesh yesterday pledged to repatriate its nationals as soon as it was possible. But the resettlement of the stateless Rohingya is a trickier issue.

“I don’t think that resettlement is the first step in this current crisis,” said US assistant secretary of state Anne Richard, an observer at the talks. “We all really hope that people who fled (Myanmar) can go home.”

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