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Local fishermen help Rohingya asylum seekers as they arrive in North Aceh, Indonesia, June 25, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Southeast Asian leaders should urgently adopt concrete plans for addressing the crisis facing ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar and abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. Leaders of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will convene virtually on June 26, 2020, for the 36th ASEAN Summit.

Vietnam, as this year’s ASEAN chair, should lead efforts to improve regional cooperation and planning with concerned governments and United Nations agencies to uphold the rights of Rohingya. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently urged Vietnam to take on a larger role in addressing the crisis.

“ASEAN leaders, having done almost nothing for years, should dramatically rethink their approach to the Rohingya crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “A coordinated regional response is desperately needed to protect Rohingya in Myanmar, in refugee camps abroad, and at sea, while pressing Myanmar to take the steps necessary for them to return home safely.”

From January to March, numerous boats, each with hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers, left overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, for Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have been pushing the boats back to sea, leaving hundreds of refugees in life-threatening conditions, without access to adequate food and water for months.

Malaysian authorities recently detained 269 Rohingya asylum seekers whose boat arrived damaged off the coast of Langkawi. Reuters reported that they may be unlawfully pushed back to sea once the boat is repaired.

Earlier this week, off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province, local fishermen and officials rescued a stranded boat of 94 Rohingya asylum seekers, including as many as 30 children. Local authorities said they planned to hold the refugees at an immigration warehouse in North Aceh.

At least one boat with hundreds of Rohingya remains at sea after being pushed back multiple times by the Malaysian coast guard. Thailand has indicated it would similarly refuse entry to Rohingya boats.

Malaysia reported that since May 1 it had blocked the arrival of 22 boats, claiming to have increased border control in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic does not justify a broad crackdown on migrants and refugees nor a blanket policy of turning away boats in distress.

Several boats have returned to Bangladesh, with some refugees sent to quarantine in the camps, while over 300 have been confined in dangerous conditions on the remote silt island of Bhasan Char. Traffickers on board pushed-back boats have demanded additional payment from asylum seekers’ families. On one boat eventually rescued by the Bangladesh coast guard after being pushed back by Malaysian authorities, some 100 Rohingya may have died from the deplorable conditions.

Given the hazards of maritime flight, Rohingya have increasingly fled Myanmar overland at the Thai border. Thai authorities arrested at least 35 Rohingya asylum seekers near the border in May, and indicated they would forcibly return them once Covid-19 eases, without assessing their protection claims.

Government pushbacks and forced returns of Rohingya asylum seekers violate international obligations not to return anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be at risk. Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia should end their policies of maritime pushbacks and instead undertake coordinated efforts to respond to boats in distress, enact search-and-rescue operations, bring boats ashore to the nearest safe port, and provide humanitarian aid. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, should be granted immediate access to any Rohingya asylum seekers who arrive by boat or overland to assess their claims for protection in accordance with international standards.

The recent pushbacks echo the 2015 crisis when thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded in boats in the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits after fleeing oppressive conditions in Myanmar. In response, governments from the region pledged to collectively address the risks of irregular boat migration and protect the rights of migrants and trafficking victims under the auspices of ASEAN, the Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting of the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. Yet the governments’ promises were never realized, as the recent response demonstrates.

ASEAN member states that are not directly affected should offer support for rescue and disembarkation efforts. The European Union, United States, Australia, and other governments should provide assistance to meet the needs of Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers throughout the region, and offer to resettle refugees who are at specific risk or have relatives living in third countries who petition for family reunification.

ASEAN has discussed the crisis in various forums since August 2017, but has largely ignored Myanmar government threats to the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State. It has also failed to support efforts to investigate the military’s atrocity crimes and pursue accountability.

The bloc has prioritized a hasty repatriation over ending abuses and providing justice for the Rohingya, as it did this week during a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on June 24. In 2019, ASEAN drafted a Preliminary Needs Assessment for repatriating the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The report, which was developed without input from Rohingya refugees, did not address the root causes of the crisis. ASEAN’s repatriation policy should entail pressing Myanmar to meet all conditions necessary for voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable returns, including granting Rohingya freedom of movement and citizenship. No returns should take place until refugees can make free and informed decisions, with UNHCR’s full involvement.

ASEAN should collectively press Myanmar to end rights violations in Rakhine State, grant unfettered access to aid organizations and independent monitors, and address the underlying causes of the crisis. The 36th ASEAN Summit presents an opportunity to communicate to Myanmar the consequences of continued inaction, such as its removal from regional military and economic initiatives.

“ASEAN governments’ focus on repatriation over safety and accountability reveals a callous disregard for Rohingya lives,” Adams said. “ASEAN member states should drop their harmful ‘non-interference’ mantra and express their readiness to respond to Myanmar’s abuses and lack of cooperation with international agencies.”

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