January 16, 2023
JAKARTA – On Jan. 8 a boat with 185 Rohingya refugees washed ashore on the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. They had spent weeks at sea in desperate conditions, fleeing cramped and overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh in search of a better life. More than half were women and children.
Sadly, they are far from alone. Just since November last year, at least another three boats have landed in Aceh after similarly perilous journeys, carrying hundreds of refugees, with at least 20 people dying at sea. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thousands Rohingya women, men and children took to boats just in 2022.
In Aceh, it is often local fisherman, driven by compassion for the refugees’ plight, who have taken it upon themselves to rescue boats stranded in the Andaman Sea. As a Rohingya who has campaigned to end the genocide against our people for most of my life, I could not be more grateful to the Acehnese for their selflessness and bravery.
At the same time, it is deplorable that ordinary people have had to step in to do what governments in the region are supposed to do. States in South and Southeast Asia have for years turned a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya “boat people”, refusing refugees to land on their shores, and even pushing their vessels back out to sea. This is both illegal and immoral behavior, and regional states must change course immediately to prevent even more lives being lost at sea.
Rohingya people have taken to boats from Myanmar for years to flee the genocide we are facing in our native Rakhine State. In recent years, it is increasingly refugees from Bangladesh who have risked their lives on dangerous sea journeys. Close to one million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh, the vast majority of whom fled vicious military violence in Myanmar in 2017.
While the Bangladeshi government has generously offered a safe haven to those fleeing, the camps are cramped and overcrowded, and Rohingya have almost no opportunities to get an education or a decent job. A boat journey is often a last, desperate attempt to build a life of dignity in Malaysia or another regional country.
In 2015, the Asian “boat crisis” gripped global headlines, as hundreds of refugees lost their lives at sea when governments cracked down on human trafficking networks. After a relative lull in sea journeys, numbers have picked up again in recent years.
In 2022, UNHCR estimates that at least 1,920 Rohingya took to boats, a sharp increase from 287 in 2021. At least 119 people were reported dead or missing last year, not including a further 180 people who are presumed dead after their boat went missing in December.
Conditions at sea are horrendous. Survivors have described being stranded on cramped boats for several months, with little or no access to food, water or medicine. They are often abused and extorted by human traffickers, who in many cases have charged refugees their life savings for deck space.
While some members of ASEAN and other regional governments have promised not to abandon refugees at sea, this has mostly amounted to lip services. In recent years, governments have sealed their borders to refugees. Sometimes, they have provided a minimum of food and medical care, only to push boats back out to sea again. This is not only inhuman but is also a violation of the non-refoulement principle, an absolute ban in international law against returning people to where they are at risk of serious human rights violations.
The scores of deaths in 2022, and the harrowing stories of those who survived, must be a wake-up call for regional states to once and for all take concrete and coordinated action. ASEAN must take a collective approach to the maritime refugee operations that focus on search-and-rescue and share responsibility across borders. It is crucial that no-one fleeing persecution is refused entry; instead, refugees should be given the shelter and medical care they need, while their international human right to seek asylum must be respected.
At the same time, the countries in Bali Process countries – an international mechanism set up in 2016 to coordinate action on maritime refugees – must ensure that they make use of the frameworks that were established to protect refugees. They are simply not doing their job.
Regional countries also refuse to face up to the root cause of this crisis: the treatment of the Rohingya in their home country, Myanmar. As long as the genocide against Rohingya continues, our people will feel compelled to risk their lives to find safety and dignity elsewhere. Even ASEAN members who have criticized the Myanmar military since the attempted coup in 2021 still engage in business with Myanmar, which helps fund the military and the crimes they commit against us. They should instead support all international justice processes to hold those Myanmar officials responsible for unspeakable crimes against the Rohingya to account.
On Jan. 8, Aceh’s fishermen led while ASEAN’s leaders failed to act. All Rohingya are grateful for their compassion. ASEAN members are turning a blind eye to both the root causes and the consequences of the Rohingya boat crisis. As long as they do, the boats will keep coming and the suffering will continue.
The writer is president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.