In early January, a boat carrying 185 Rohingya refugees washed ashore in Indonesia’s Aceh province. They spent weeks at sea in harsh conditions, fleeing cramped and overcrowded camps in Bangladesh in search of a better life. More than half were women and children.
Sadly, they are not alone. Since November last year, at least three other boats have landed in Aceh after the same dangerous voyages, carrying hundreds of refugees, and at least 20 people have died at sea. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thousands of Rohingya, including women and children, went to dangerous boat routes in 2022.
In Aceh, it is often local fishermen, driven by compassion for refugees, who have taken it upon themselves to save boats in the Andaman Sea. As a Rohingya who has advocated for an end to the genocide of our people all my life, I cannot thank the Acehnese enough for their selflessness and courage.
At the same time, it is unfortunate that ordinary people have taken steps to do what the local governments should do. From India to Indonesia, countries in South and Southeast Asia have been keeping an eye on Rohingya “boat people” for years, denying refugees access to shore and even pushing their boats back. to the sea.
This is illegal – a violation of the principle of non-refoulement under international law that prohibits countries from sending people to places where they are at risk of serious human rights violations. It is also a bad behavior, and the countries of the region must change it immediately so that more lives are not lost at sea.
The Rohingya people have taken boats from Myanmar for years to escape the genocide we are facing in our Rakhine state. In recent years, more and more refugees from Bangladesh have risked their lives on the perilous sea journey. About a million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh.
Although the Bangladeshi government has generously provided safe havens for the refugees, the camps are cramped and overcrowded, and the Rohingya have no access to education or decent work. A boat trip is often the last resort, to try to build a decent life elsewhere.
In 2015, the “boat crisis” in Asia grabbed international headlines, as hundreds of migrants lost their lives at sea as governments cracked down on people-smuggling networks. After a slight decline in cruises, numbers have rebounded in recent years. In 2022, UNHCR estimates, at least 1,920 Rohingya will board the boat – a significant increase from 287 in 2021.
At least 119 people were reported dead or missing last year, including another 180 people presumed dead after their boat went missing in December.
Conditions at sea are bad. Survivors have described being cramped on a boat for months, without food, water or medicine. They are often abused and kidnapped by people smugglers, who often pay refugees their life savings to find a place.
Although members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional governments have pledged not to turn refugees away at sea, many of them – including India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – have sealed their borders to refugees. Sometimes, they will provide less food and medical care, only to push the boats back to the sea again.
The high number of deaths in 2022, as well as the tragic stories of those who survived, should be a wake-up call for international action in a sustained and coordinated manner. ASEAN should adopt a coordinated approach to working with refugees at sea that focuses on search and rescue and shared responsibility across borders. It is important that no one fleeing persecution is denied entry; instead, refugees should be given the accommodation and medical care they need, while their right to seek asylum should be respected.
At the same time, the countries that are members of the Bali Process – an international process established in 2002 to deal with the phenomenon of migrants at sea and human trafficking – must ensure that they use the measures established to protect those fleeing violence and death. All 10 members of ASEAN and South Asian countries like India are part of the Bali Process. In 2016, after the “boat crisis”, its members adopted the Bali Declaration in which they pledged to strengthen cooperation in search and rescue operations and to find legal recourse for refugees. So far, however, this has only slightly increased the paper’s promise.
Meanwhile, regional countries are also refusing to address the root cause of the crisis: the treatment of the Rohingya in their own country, Myanmar.
As long as the killing of Rohingya continues, our people will be forced to risk their lives to find safety and dignity elsewhere. Even the ASEAN members who criticized Myanmar’s military since the coup attempt in 2021 are doing business with Myanmar, which helps finance the war and the crimes they do to us. Instead they should support all international justice mechanisms to hold the Myanmar authorities accountable for the crimes against the Rohingya.
Meanwhile, Aceh’s fishermen have shown humanitarian leadership that ASEAN has rejected. All the Rohingya appreciate their kindness. However, as long as the ASEAN members remain focused on the causes and consequences of the Rohingya crisis, the boats will continue to come and the suffering will continue.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect Al Jazeera’s influence.