Thousands of migrants are currently stranded in boats off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Several thousand have made it ashore, but the governments of these countries are refusing to allow those who remain at sea to land. Most of the boats are overcrowded and on the verge of sinking. Local fishermen and villagers have rescued hundreds from sinking boats off the coast of Sumatra. It is estimated that 6-8,000 remain stranded at sea.

The passengers are primarily migrants from Bangladesh looking for work and Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma. There are approximately one million Rohingya living in Burma, but as a non-Buddhist minority they are denied citizenship and forced to live in segregated ghettos where poverty, disease and starvation are rife. The Burmese government refuses to recognize them and insists they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh despite the fact that many have roots in Burma that go back many centuries.

Over 100,000 Rohingya have fled Burma in recent years as sectarian tensions have increased. Hundreds have been killed in violent clashes. The Burmese military junta was notorious for persecuting minorities and despite a transitional government, this persecution continues. Many minorities flee and refugee camps on the Thai border house thousands of asylum seekers.

But no group has endured the level of persecution suffered by the Rohingya, whom the United Nations claims is one of the world’s most oppressed minorities. Since they live in the western part of the country and are forced into segregated camps, the Rohingya must flee by boat.

They flee alongside Bangladeshi migrants and pay large amounts of money to human traffickers, who frequently abuse them and cram them into unsafe and overloaded vessels, just like in the Mediterranean. As Thailand has recently begun cracking down on human trafficking, many are now fleeing for Malaysia and Indonesia.

But each time they have attempted to land, authorities have turned them away and sent them to another country, which Human Rights Watch has referred to as “human ping-pong.” Most of the ships have been abandoned by the smugglers and left to float offshore. There have been reports of fighting over food, people dying of disease and starvation and even stories of people throwing others overboard to lighten the load and keep the ship from sinking.

Migrants have been fleeing in record numbers this year. Indonesia and Malaysia say they already have too many Rohingya to accept any more. The governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are all meeting to discuss the issue. The United Nations and several NGO’s are also involved and are pledging millions of dollars in aid to assist the countries in dealing with the refugee crisis.

Fifteen countries have been invited to a summit in Thailand at the end of the month to discuss the crisis and come up with a solution. Burma has also been invited but says it will not attend and refuses to accept any responsibility for the problem. The first obstacle is finding a place to set up camps to house the migrants. But perhaps the most difficult and lengthy part will be identifying and processing them and sorting out economic migrants from asylum seekers. The former will be sent home, while the latter will be sent abroad to third countries.

– Matt Lesso

Sources: The Guardian 1, Yahoo, BBC, The Guardian 2, The Guardian 3
Photo: Flickr