A Rohingya migrant who arrived in Indonesia by boat cries while speaking on a mobile phone with a relative in Malaysia, at a temporary shelter in Kuala Langsa in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 16, 2015.

(Bangkok) – Governments gathering in Bangkok on May 29, 2015, to discuss the Southeast Asia boat people crisis should reach binding agreements to save people at sea, permit them to disembark without conditions, and ensure unimpeded access for United Nations agencies to protect the rights of asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today.

The governments should also demand that Burma and Bangladesh take specific steps to end human rights abuses against the Rohingya that are causing them to flee on dangerous boats to escape persecution.

The Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean will include representatives from 17 countries, including Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Lao PDR, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Thailand, with observers from the United States and Switzerland, and senior officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“Regional governments should work with the United Nations and others to agree on binding solutions to this human tragedy – not sweep it under the rug as they have done for years,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The ending of human rights abuses in the source countries of Burma and Bangladesh needs to be matched by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with support from other countries, taking humanitarian action to receive and protect refugees fleeing persecution.”

Over the past 15 months, international agencies estimate that as many as 88,000 men, women, and children have traveled from Bangladesh and Burma in boats to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many of these are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma, although a significant number are also Bangladeshi nationals. Most have traveled in boats to Thailand, where they are then transported overland into jungle camps in Thailand and Malaysia. The camps are used as holding facilities in which victims are detained, extorted, and abused, with mass graves found in recent weeks on both sides of the border of Thailand and Malaysia.

Human Rights Watch urges participating governments in the special meeting to prioritize the following issues:

  • Emphasize urgent need for search and rescue – now and in the future. The participating governments should accept international offers to provide search and rescue support and seek ways to better coordinate search and rescue efforts, share intelligence, and pool resources. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia should agree to take proactive efforts to mobilize their marine search and rescue operations to seek out the remaining boats possibly still at sea;

 

  • Ensure unimpeded and unconditional access by UNHCR and IOM to rescued boat people – now and in the future. Transparent, impartial, and professional assessments of individuals who arrive on land or are rescued at sea are needed to determine who is entitled to refugee protection, who should receive services as a trafficking victim, and how appropriate services should be delivered. UNHCR should be permitted to exercise its mandate in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia – none of which are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention – to screen boat arrivals for refugee status and other protection needs. These governments should abide by UNHCR refugee status determinations and scrupulously ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not forcibly returned to persecution or other serious harm and that no one is prevented from fleeing threats to their life or freedom. This is especially important in the case of Burma, where Rohingya have been targets of persecution for decades, and whose denial of citizenship rights makes any return impossible as long as Burma denies their national identity;

 

  • Demand that Thailand permit disembarkation of boat people, and ensure that Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries make long-term commitments to allow disembarkation. While Malaysia and Indonesia recently agreed to allow boat people to land on their soil, the Thai government has thus far refused to allow boat people to land on Thai soil. The Thai government should commit to allow boat people to disembark in safety and dignity and grant access to UNHCR to assess their protection needs. The special meeting should reject any variation of so-called help along policies that result in stranding boat people in deadly conditions or shifting responsibilities to other countries;

 

  • Exert pressure on Burma as the main source of the problem. Call on Burmese officials to immediately end the repressive measures and denial of basic rights that have driven Rohingya to flee their native Arakan (Rakhine) state over many years. The meeting should exert pressure on Burma to admit that Rohingya should be considered citizens of Burma whose rights should be respected, and end all discriminatory policies against them. The national government’s denial of the status of the Rohingya only makes solutions harder to formulate. For instance, Zaw Htay, the spokesperson of President Thein Sein’s office, stated last week that “we will not accept the allegations made by some [governments] that Myanmar (Burma) is the source of the problem.” Burma should amend the 1982 Citizenship Act and do away with discriminatory restrictions on the right to movement, livelihoods, right to own property, right to marriage and have children, and other basic rights that all persons of Burma should enjoy; and

 

  • Exert pressure on Bangladesh to stop its pushback policy and end its persecution of Rohingya. The Bangladesh government should cease its own publicly acknowledged policy of engaging in pushbacks of Rohingya to Arakan state and recognize them as refugees deserving protection and support services. Dhaka should also agree to accept international offers of assistance, previously rejected, to provide basic health, education, and other services for Rohingya and its own citizens residing in the same border region with Burma so no one will feel compelled to get on boats.

“This regional meeting will only be a success if every government commits to effective search and rescue operations, meeting the protection needs of refugees, prosecuting traffickers, and resolving the root causes that drive these desperate people onto boats,” Adams said. “International burden sharing, including resettling refugees, is also important, but will only be a lasting solution if all governments agree that human rights must be at the center of all current and future policies.”