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'More talks needed' on boat people

Published 29/05/2015

Thai foreign minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn speaks at a meeting on the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis (AP)
Thai foreign minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn speaks at a meeting on the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrant crisis (AP)

A regional conference called to address the swelling tide of boat people in Southeast Asia has ended with no major breakthroughs with Burma criticising those blaming it for fuelling the crisis and warning that "finger pointing" would not help.

But delegates agreed on one thing at least - the need to keep talking.

In Burma, state television announced the navy had seized 727 migrants found on a boat a few dozen miles off the coast of the Irrawaddy Delta region, the latest vessel found in the last few weeks.

The report identified those on board as "Bengalis" - a reference to Bangladesh - and said they were taken to a nearby island. Forty-five of them were children.

Today's meeting in Bangkok was attended by representatives of 17 countries directly or indirectly affected by the growing crisis, including the United States and Japan, and officials from international organisations such as the UN refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

That so many countries - including Burma - participated was considered progress in itself.

"The most encouraging result was the general consensus that these discussions need to continue," said IOM director-general William Lacy Swing. "It cannot be a one-off."

Southeast Asia has been beset for years by growing waves of desperate migrants from Bangladesh and Burma.

In the last several weeks alone, at least 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have made their way ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown that has unearthed the graves of dozens of people who died while being kept hostage in illegal trafficking camps.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad.

But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma, which has denied them basic rights, confined more than 100,000 to camps and denies them citizenship. There are more than 1 million Rohingya living in the country formerly known as Burma.

At the start of the meeting, the UN's assistant high commissioner for refugees responsible for protection, Volker Turk, said there could be no solution if root causes are not addressed.

"This will require full assumption of responsibility by Burma toward all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal," he said.

"In the interim ... recognising that Burma is their own country is urgently required (as well as) access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms."

Htin Linn, the acting director of Burma's Foreign Affairs Ministry, shot back in a speech afterwards, saying Turk should "be more informed".

He also cast doubt on whether "the spirit of co-operation is prevailing in the room. ... Finger pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere."

The word Rohingya did not appear on the invitation for the meeting, after Burma threatened to boycott the talks if it did, and most people who spoke at the meeting avoided saying it.

Burma's government does not recognise Rohingya as an ethnic group, arguing instead they are really Bangladeshis. Bangladesh also does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens.

An official summary of the meeting included a list of key points, including ensuring the UN has access to migrants and addressing the issue's root causes.

But it qualified most of them as "proposals and recommendations (that) were put forward". It was not clear that any of them had been agreed on.

There were small signs of progress. Thai foreign minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn said Bangkok agreed to allow the US military to operate flights out of Thailand to search for migrants stuck on boats - one week after Washington put in a request to do so.

And the US pledged 3 million US dollars (£1.9 million) to help the IOM deal with the crisis, while Australia pledged close to 4 million dollars (£2.6 million) toward humanitarian assistance in Burma and Bangladesh.

Southeast Asian governments have largely ignored the issue for years. The problem has recently attracted international attention amid increased media scrutiny as more migrants and refugees pour out of the Bay of Bengal.

"In many cases, they pay human smugglers thousands of dollars for passage to another country, but are instead held for weeks or months while traffickers extort more money from their families back home. Rights groups say some migrants have been beaten to death.

Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the people still stranded at sea, and to put pressure on Burma to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.

Mr Swing said more than 160,000 people have fled into Southeast Asia since 2012, 25,000 of them this year.

"These are large numbers, but this is not an invasion or an inundation. It is something that is entirely manageable if we can come together as a community with the right policies," he said, adding that one of the challenges is changing the way migrants are viewed.

"Now it's a fairly toxic narrative, a fairly negative one," Swing said. But he said many nations were "built on the backs of migrants and with the minds of migrants. We need to ... look upon migrants as opportunities rather than a problem."

That will not be easy. Most countries in the region view the boat people as a burden, and refugees have been ping-ponged back and forth between Southeast Asian nations that have long tried to push them away.

In a turnaround, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed this month to provide Rohingya with shelter for one year. It is unclear what will happen after that, though both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement and the US has offered to take some in. Thailand has offered humanitarian help but not shelter.

Speaking at the start of the conference, Mr Thanasak said Thailand has already taken in 600 boat people. "No country can solve this problem alone," he said.

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