South-East Asia: Thousands still at risk despite refugee boat U-turn

The decision by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to reverse an appalling policy of turning back boats carrying refugees and vulnerable migrants is a step in the right direction – but falls far short of the measures urgently needed to save thousands of lives still at risk at sea, or to address the root causes of the crisis, Amnesty International said.

In a joint statement, Indonesia and Malaysia have said they will provide temporary shelter for up to 7,000 people still at sea, believed to be mainly Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma, as well as Bangladeshis. The shelter would only be provided for up to a year, and on condition that the international community would help with repatriation or resettlement efforts.

Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, said:

“This is certainly good news for the people aboard those boats that manage to reach the safety of the shore – but it does nothing for the thousands still adrift at sea, with diminishing supplies of food and water, or for any more who may follow them.

“Temporary shelter is a first step, and is better than no protection at all. However, it is far from adequate. Refugees and vulnerable migrants must not be criminalised for irregular entry, nor can they be returned to countries where their life or rights are at risk. The people aboard the boats are in the grip of a humanitarian crisis.”

The joint statement followed emergency talks about the regional crisis on Wednesday, attended by foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. There had been strong international criticism following reports that boats seeking to reach their shores had been driven back to sea, leaving those on board at risk of death.

Thailand did not sign on to the commitment to provide temporary shelter, citing domestic legal constraints. But it has pledged to not push back boats stranded in its waters, and to provide humanitarian assistance to those aboard.

On 29 May, Thailand will host a regional summit bringing together key stakeholders – including the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, as well as Burma and UN agencies – to discuss the regional crisis.

Richard Bennett added:

“Next week’s conference offers an important opportunity to address the root causes of this crisis, including the systemic discrimination in law, policy and practice against the Rohingya and other minority populations in Burma.” 

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