Deals unlikely at migrant crisis meet

A Royal Malaysian Police forensic team handles exhumed human remains in a jungle at Bukit Wang Burma in the Malaysian northern state of Perlis, which borders Thailand, on May 26, 2015.

International organisations attending a meeting in Bangkok today on the boat people crisis are calling for closer regional coordination as well as more lasting solutions to prevent an exodus in future.

The meeting will bring together senior officials from 17 countries, mostly from Asia. The United States and Switzerland are participating as observers. Three international organisations - the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, as well as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) - will also take part.

While proposals to resolve the migrant crisis will be presented, the meeting is not expected to produce anything binding or decisive, given that many of the representatives, including those from key countries like Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia, are not sending ministers.

Myanmar has indicated it has no plans to reach any deal. "We are going there only to discuss the regional crisis which all of the ASEAN countries are facing," Mr Htein Lin, director-general at Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and head of the delegation from Myanmar, told Reuters yesterday.

The three international organisations are proposing that participating countries adopt a 10-point action plan that would allow the stricken seaborne migrants to disembark at their closest available port and be granted shelter, as well as improve conditions in their source countries.

UNHCR spokesman Vivian Tan told The Straits Times: "There's talk to create some kind of fund to try to resolve this."

She noted that resettlement is a rather limited solution. "The need for resettlement is massive around the world… (but) there are less than 30 resettlement countries and they offer a limited number of slots," she said.

The Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and make up a large number of the migrants stranded at sea in recent weeks, need to be assessed alongside those fleeing violent conflicts in Syria and Sudan, for example.

"One out of 10 refugees that need to be resettled actually gets it," Ms Tan added.

Every year, thousands of Rohingya Muslims and economic migrants from Bangladesh travel by boat down the Andaman Sea in search of better lives, usually in Malaysia, spawning a lucrative human trafficking trade.

Syndicates have taken to kidnapping people to feed the demand for cheap and underground labour, as well as torturing them for ransom.

Thailand, a way station in the trafficking route, cracked down on the syndicates early this month after the discovery of mass graves in traffickers' camps near the Thai-Malaysian border.

Panicked traffickers abandoned their human cargo at sea, and the boat people were repeatedly rejected by the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies until an agreement on May 20 allowed them temporary shelter in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thailand, which has joined regional search and rescue efforts for the boatloads of stricken migrants, plans to give medical and other types of aid on board naval ships before sending them on to Malaysia or Indonesia.

The international agencies' proposed plan, seeking "effective, predictable disembarkation to a place of safety" for rescued migrants, wants them to be brought to shore where they are found.

Anti-trafficking groups have long alleged official complicity in the illicit operations.

In Malaysia, where mass graves of migrants were also found in the jungles of Perlis over the weekend, Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar yesterday defended the security forces' ability to patrol the rugged border area.

"Our patrols don't normally go on top of the hills, we go by the side because normally people don't live on top of the hills," he was quoted byAgence France-Presse as saying.

IOM has appealed for US$26 million (S$35 million) to help up to 10,000 people in the crisis.

More than 4,000 out of an estimated 8,000 people stranded at sea have landed since May 10, with thousands more unaccounted for.

IOM director-general William Lacy Swing told reporters in Bangkok yesterday his group is aiming for both "practical and concrete" outcomes today. "We are quite optimistic and very pleased that (Myanmar is) going to be present," he said.

"Myanmar has to be engaged in any solution involving any of the groups."


This article was first published on May 29, 2015.
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