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Floating coffins in the sea

  • Published at 12:57 pm May 23rd, 2015
Floating coffins in the sea

The deadly game of “human ping-pong” has likely come to an end for now, as governments of Malaysia and Indonesia offered to provide short-term refuge to the 7,000 illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar currently floating on the Andaman Sea.

Earlier this week, Philippines, an unaffected country, volunteered to be the first ASEAN member to offer shelter to those adrift on open waters. Malaysia and Indonesia followed soon after. Although a praiseworthy step, the solution is just what the Malaysian foreign minister has called it -- temporary. A more lasting solution to the current crisis would require treating the dual root causes of the crisis by the apparent troublemakers -- Myanmar and Bangladesh. The first one, unsurprisingly, is addressing the non-citizen status of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The second is Bangladesh’s management (or lack thereof) of its vast, unskilled, and impoverished labour force.

For Myanmar, the treatment of its Muslim minority remains a shameful spot on its fragile path of incremental democratic transition that brought approving world leaders queuing up at Nay Pyi Taw since 2011. For the Rohingyas in particular, the situation has gone from bad to worse.

The 2012 ethnic conflict, which killed 200 people, has left roughly 150,000 Rohingyas internally displaced in squalid camps in the Rakhine State where they are devoid of basic rights like health, education, and freedom of movement. After the 2014 census, the government has officially dispossessed the term “Rohingya” from the Burmese vocabulary. The official word for the Muslim population from Rakhine is “Bengali,” as they are believed to be interlopers from Bangladesh, thus not entitled to any legal or social rights.

The ensuing result is a large exodus of desperate illegal Rohingyas from Rakhine as well as from Teknaf, where many have been residing illegally. Since 2012, around 120,000 Rohingyas embarked on perilous sea journeys to reach Thailand, Malaysia, or even Australia, creating a regional problem for all the concerned countries which were so far united in not accepting them. 

Sadly, despite being the “most persecuted minority of the world” and the “subject of slow genocide,” the Rohingyas have failed to garner a collective ASEAN empathy. Bangladesh, a far poorer and lesser developed neighbour of Myanmar than most of its ASEAN counterparts, has already taken in more than 500,000 Rohingyas fleeing persecution over the last three decades. This stands as a rare and exceptional humanitarian gesture for which the country rarely receives much credit.

For now, it is safe to assume that this week’s surprising decision of taking in illegal floating migrants by Indonesia and Malaysia is likely to remain a one-off incident to avoid the imminent humanitarian catastrophe. Sooner or later, however, Myanmar needs to address the citizenship question for the Rohingyas, which remains at the heart of the crisis.

Luckily, some conversations along these lines have started in Myanmar already. In a recent interview with a UK-based newspaper, the spokesperson of Myanmar’s most important opposition party NLD, U Nyan Win, demanded citizenship for Rohingyas who have been living in the country for at least two generations.

This is a substantive statement. But does it reflect NLD’s stance on Rohingyas or just U Nyan Win’s personal one? Well, that is not clear. What is clear is that NLD Chief Aung San Suu Kyi’s notorious silence on the plight of the Rohingyas is likely to be stemming from her calculation for the election to be held in November this year.

As NLD will be getting its first real chance to go to power, she does not want to anger the Buddhist voters by looking too cozy with the Rohingyas. Hence the wait for a substantial discussion on the topic could potentially be a long wait.

For Bangladesh, on the other hand, the root cause is quite different. Bangladesh, oversupplied with a young, unskilled labour force, has so far failed to take advantage of its demographic dividend effectively. A combination of the widening gap between opportunities and income, a distorted imbalance of wealth distribution, and the dwindling opportunities of safe migration abroad means that a large population is currently jobless.

Add poverty, illiteracy, and lack of awareness to this and it becomes the most frustrated and vulnerable group for traffickers to prey on. Thus Bangladeshis who board these boats bound for Malaysia are largely economic migrants; “fortune seekers” who are easily persuaded with a promise of a decent job in a richer regional country.

With that dream thrashed, the only choice that remains for them now is to return. The Bangladesh government has already started the process of bringing back these prodigal countrymen from Thailand and Indonesia. For now, countrywide large-scale awareness campaigns against illegal maritime migration should be an immediate priority. In the longrun, however, Bangladesh needs to address the other root causes such as broadening the scope of safe unskilled migration abroad to increase its remittance supply while creating more job opportunities at home, which will guarantee a respectable wage.

Until the root causes are addressed, the common ground for co-operation among governments across the region is to collectively crack down on domestic and trans-regional human trafficking syndicates and thus stop the boats from getting filled up.

Unless it happens immediately, boatloads of fortune-seekers or desperate refugees are likely to come or go from secret ports, allowed to harbour (highly unlikely), or sent adrift from neighbouring shores. Some might eventually make it to their dream destinations (exact numbers are still unknown), but a good number are bound for the protracted hellish limbo on open waters, becoming modern-day slaves, or -- if they are lucky -- facing death. 

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