In early January, a boat carrying 185 Rohingya refugees washed ashore on the coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh. They spent weeks at sea in squalid conditions, fleeing cramped and overcrowded camps in Bangladesh in search of a better life. More than half of them are women and children.
Unfortunately, they are far from alone. Since November last year, at least three more boats have landed in Aceh after similar perilous journeys. carrying hundreds of refugees, with at least 20 people dying at sea. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thousands of Rohingya, including women and children, They resort to perilous boat trips in the year 2022.
In Aceh, it is often local fishermen, driven by sympathy for desperate refugees, who take it upon themselves to rescue rescue boats stranded in the Andaman Sea. As a Rohingya who has campaigned to end the genocide against our people for most of my life, I couldn’t be more so. Grateful to Aceh For their courage and selflessness.
At the same time, it is unfortunate that the general public is stepping in to do what governments in the region are supposed to do. From India to Indonesia, countries in South and Southeast Asia have for years turned a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya “boat people”, refusing refugees the chance to land on their shores and even sending their ships back out to sea.
This is illegal – a violation of the principle of non-refoulement. Under international law, states are prohibited from returning people to where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations. It is also immoral behaviour, and regional states must immediately change course to prevent more lives being lost at sea.
Rohingyas have been taken on boats from Myanmar for years to escape the genocide we are facing in their native Rakhine state. In recent years, it has been refugees from Bangladesh who have done just that They risked their lives on dangerous cruises. Nearly a million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh.
While the Bangladeshi government has generously provided safe haven for those fleeing, camps do exist Overcrowded and overcrowdedThe Rohingya have almost no access to education or a decent job. A boat trip is often a desperate last-ditch effort to build a decent life elsewhere.
In 2015, the Asian “boat crisis” made global headlines, as hundreds of refugees lost their lives at sea as governments cracked down on human trafficking networks. After a relative lull in cruises, numbers have been on the rise again in recent years. In 2022, UNHCR estimates that at least 1,920 Rohingya have boarded boats – a sharp increase from 287 in 2021.
At least 119 people were reported dead or missing last year, not including another 180 people presumed dead after their boat went missing in December.
Conditions at sea are appalling. Survivors described being stranded on cramped rafts for sake several months, with little or no access to food, water, or medication. They are often abused and extorted by human traffickers, who in many cases have paid the refugees their life savings in exchange for deck space.
While members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional governments have promised not to abandon refugees at sea, many among them – including India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – have in fact closed their borders to refugees. Sometimes, they provided minimal food and medical care, just to get the boats back out to sea again.
The many deaths in 2022, and the harrowing stories of those who survived, should serve as a wake-up call for countries in the region to take concrete, coordinated action once and for all. ASEAN should take a collective approach to maritime refugee operations that focus on search and rescue and cross-border responsibility sharing. It is of the utmost importance that no one fleeing persecution is refused entry; Instead, refugees should have access to the shelter and medical care they need, while respecting their right to seek asylum.
At the same time, member states of the Bali Process – an international mechanism created in 2002 in part to coordinate action on maritime refugees and human trafficking – must ensure they take advantage of the frameworks put in place to protect those fleeing violence and death. All ten ASEAN member countries as well as South Asian countries such as India are part of the Bali Process. In 2016, after the “boat crisis”, its members adopted a system Bali ad They pledged to enhance cooperation in search and rescue efforts and to find legal pathways for refugees. But so far, this has been little more than a promise on paper.
For now, countries in the region are also refusing to confront the root cause of this crisis: the treatment of the Rohingya in their homeland, Myanmar.
As long as the genocide against the Rohingya continues, our people will feel compelled to risk their lives to find safety and dignity elsewhere. Even ASEAN members who have been critical of the Myanmar military since the attempted coup in 2021 are doing business with Myanmar, helping to fund the military and the crimes they commit against us. They should instead support all international justice processes to hold Myanmar officials accountable for crimes against the Rohingya.
So far, the Acehnese fishermen have shown the humane leadership that ASEAN has shied away from. All Rohingya are grateful for their sympathy. However, as long as ASEAN members turn a blind eye to the causes and consequences of the Rohingya crisis, the boats will keep coming and the suffering will continue.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.