Liberal Studies: The trials faced by stranded Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees

Liberal Studies: The trials faced by stranded Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees

Searching for a better home, many survivors of war and violence take to the sea - but the oceanic voyages are often just as deadly


Hundreds of Rohingya refugees line up for breakfast in the sport stadium on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees line up for breakfast in the sport stadium on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Photo: EPA

More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off the coast of Sumatra on Sunday, Indonesian police said. Passengers aboard one vessel carrying 712 people told police how their boat sank off the east coast of the island of Sumatra after it was driven away by Malaysia.

"According to initial information we got from them, they were pushed away by the Malaysian navy to the border of Indonesian waters," said Sunarya, a police chief in Aceh, where the migrants arrived.

The boat, whose passengers included 61 children, was sinking, but Indonesian fishermen ferried them to shore, he said. Not far away, 47 people from another vessel were rescued by local fishermen. Nearly 600 migrants were already in Aceh after making it ashore in recent days.

Earlier, another boat carrying about 300 Rohingya - a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar - left Thailand's waters, a Thai official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided some food.

The boat's passengers included many children and women who wept as they begged for food and water, after arriving near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe. They told of a grim two-month journey in which 10 passengers had died of starvation or illness and were tossed overboard.

"We haven't had anything to eat for a week. There is nowhere to sleep ... My children are sick," said Sajida, 27, a Rohingya who was travelling with four children.

Their boat had been trying to reach Malaysia, but provincial governor Dejrat Limsiri of the Thai province of Satun said it would now head for Indonesia.

"We gave them ready-to-eat meals. They will try to go to Indonesia as it seems they cannot get to Malaysia," he said.

Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants are stranded at sea.

Agence France-Presse


Countries shutting out refugees

After more than 5,000 migrants have died trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean in the last 18 months, the United Nations (UN) is considering taking military action against migrant boats used by smugglers in the Mediterranean

Italy's Red Cross president Francesco Rocca has spoken out against such plans. Instead of resorting to force, he says more legal avenues should be opened to allow asylum seekers to reach Europe safely.

"For us, bombing the boats is not the solution. The traffickers will find other routes," says Rocca.

Rohingya migrants sleep inside a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province. Photo: Reuters


Instead of helping out the needy, European nations are seeking advice from Australia on its much criticised and harsh system to stop refugees. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed that European countries want to find out more about how Australia stops asylum seeker boats from reaching its shores.

Refugee advocates and human rights groups criticise Australia over the drastic tactics of its Operation Sovereign Borders policy. It tries to stop Indonesian boats carrying asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Since Abbott's coalition was elected in September 2013, Australian navy and customs boats routinely send asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia.

When it doesn't send the boats away, Australia pays poor Pacific nations Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep asylum seekers in detention camps. Australia has also agreed to pay Papua New Guinea and Cambodia to resettle refugees. Critics say that by doing this, Australia is avoiding its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention.

The desperate and needy

Sajida, who was travelling with her four young children on board a refugee boat, said she was trying to reach Malaysia, but the boat was set adrift by people smugglers who damaged the engine and fled.

"We haven't had anything to eat for a week. There is nowhere to sleep ... My children are sick," the 27-year-old said.

A Thai naval officer on Koh Lipe said they planned to help fix the engine "so they can go to their destination".

The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed to be stuck at sea and risk starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-used people-smuggling routes.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Southeast Asian countries to accept the migrants, telling them that rescue at sea was an international obligation.

In a statement, Ban voiced alarm that "some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants" and urged governments to keep their borders and ports open to help the vulnerable people who are in need.

International human rights watchdogs were also critical. "The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping-pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Many of the migrants are Rohingya, who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and have been targeted by violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. More than 1.3 million Rohingya - viewed by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities - live in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

Malaysia refused to budge, with the deputy home minister putting blame for the problem squarely on the migrants' home countries.

"Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people," said Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, the Malaysian deputy minister. "So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive."

He said Bangladesh also needed to prevent illegal immigrants leaving its shores.

Sharing the migrant burden

The newly proposed European Agenda on Migration hit the headlines in Italy last week. The country is one of the most affected by the current migration surge from North Africa.

The blueprint was issued by the European Commission on Wednesday. It proposes that all member states of the European Union (EU) will have to share responsibility for asylum seekers. It also wants to make it easier for people fleeing war in their home countries to enter Europe legally.

Overall, most officials and media analysts in Italy welcomed the plan. "It marks an important date in the EU's assumption of responsibility with respects to immigration problem, and it is a sign of real solidarity towards Italy," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.

Italy has repeatedly called for more EU help in dealing both with the increasing number of migrants fleeing North Africa, and the recent series of deadly shipwrecks of migrant boats.

Seven-year-old Arzan Fatimah, a rescued Rohingya girl from Myanmar, plays with a donated stuffed toy at a confinement area in the fishing port of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province, Indonesia. Photo: AFP


In this regard, the EU proposed to strengthen the Mediterranean rescue mission and widen its area of operations beyond the current 48km limit to save more lives.

Another key recommendation in the agenda was to introduce a mandatory quota system for distributing asylum seekers more fairly among EU members. Italy backed the quota system, since such distribution system would ease the country's current burden.

About 170,100 migrants reached the Italian coast in 2014, and 84,000 immigrants are still being hosted in "reception centres". In the same year, the country also accepted 20,630 asylum applications.

This year, between January and April, there were 33,800 new arrivals from the sea registered.


"Obviously Operation Sovereign Borders is an object lesson in how to do the right thing by everyone. Do the right thing by our people and ultimately do the right thing by poor, misguided people who for all sorts of reasons want a better life but who very often end up dead if they succumb to the lure of the people smugglers."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on his measures to deter asylum seekers


"We estimate 50 children died in the hold with their mothers."

Unicef's Andrea Incoming, after a boat carrying refugees from Libya to Italy sank, killing more than 900 people

A first-hand account of what it's like on a refugee's death-boat

Who are the Rohingya?

Thousands of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing persecution at home, and now their refugee boats are being turned away by neighbouring countries, leaving them stranded at sea. Others had been locked up in jungle camps in Thailand. An untold number have died of starvation, sickness and abuse.

Who are they?

An estimated at 1.3 million people, Rohingya are a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. They are concentrated in western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh. They are not recognised by the Myanmese government as an official ethnic group and are denied citizenship.

Since Myanmar's independence in 1948, the Rohingya have gradually been excluded, and have been persecuted amid repeated outbreaks of violence. The latest incident started in 2012, with hundreds killed and 140,000 displaced. The UN has called them one of the world's most persecuted minorities, effectively stateless.

What do they want?

Rohingya want equal rights in Myanmar, but the government says they are not eligible for citizenship. The country's military-drafted 1982 law defines full citizens as members of ethnic groups that had permanently settled in modern-day Myanmar prior to 1823. Even the name "Rohingya" is a taboo in Myanmar, where they are referred to as Bengalis - immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The Rohingya define themselves as an native-born Burmese ethnic group descended from Arab merchants who settled in South Asia from the eighth century onwards.

What they face

In Myanmar, the Rohingya have limited access to education and medical care. They cannot move around or practise their religion freely. In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunities for work.

Many try to flee to Muslim-majority Malaysia in search of jobs and security. To do that, an average of 900 people crowd into small wooden boats nearly every day. Many of those migrating sell everything they have - land, cattle, gold - to pay human traffickers, who typically charge US$2,000 per person for passage to Malaysia.

A Rohingya child who recently arrived by boat has his picture taken for identification purposes at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters


They often end up in secret jungle camps in neighbouring Thailand, where they face extortion and beatings until relatives come up with money to win their release.

Starting this month, Thai authorities uncovered more than 30 corpses buried at the traffickers' abandoned jungle camps bordering Malaysia and launched the crackdown, including arrests of police and local officials. That alarmed traffickers, who abandoned their ships and left their human cargo at sea without fuel, food or clean water.

Bonus point

11 million ...

Number of people displaced inside their own countries last year due to the threat of violence from new and continuing conflicts , according to the report by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Word watch

Traffic (verb)
Meaning: to buy, sell, or transport illegal things such as drugs or guns
Usage: People still choose to traffic drugs even though they risk serious punishments.

Trafficking (noun / adj)
Meaning: the activity of buying and selling something illegally
Usage: More than 50 Thai police officers have been punished over suspected links to human trafficking networks after a camp was discovered at the Malaysian border.

Trafficker (noun)
Meaning: a person who buys and sells something illegally
Usage: Eight condemned drug traffickers defiantly refused blindfolds and sang Amazing Grace until they were gunned down at an Indonesian prison.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Refugees stranded at sea


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