Regional governments have been urged to take action to prevent another boat people crisis in a report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International timed to coincide with a new “sailing season” in the Bay of Bengal following the end of the monsoon.
“Without cooperation between governments to combat human trafficking, grave human rights abuses will again be perpetrated against some of Southeast Asia’s most vulnerable people,” said Amnesty International refugee researcher Anna Shea.
“Governments must ensure that initiatives against traffickers do not put people’s lives or human rights at risk, which is what happened in May 2015. They must also act quickly to implement maritime search and rescue operations,” she said.
The Amnesty report, Deadly journeys: The refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia, focuses on the events that unfolded in May after a crackdown on human trafficking in Thailand resulted in thousands of refugees and migrants being abandoned at sea.
The October 21 report is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya refugees, most of whom were victims of human trafficking, who reached Indonesia after fleeing Myanmar or Bangladesh.
“The daily physical abuse faced by Rohingya who were trapped on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea is almost too horrific to put into words,” said Ms Shea. “They had escaped Myanmar, but had only traded one nightmare for another. Even children were not spared these abuses,” she said.
“The shocking truth is that those we spoke to are the ‘lucky’ ones who made it to shore – countless others perished at sea or were trafficked into forced labour situations. Governments must do more to prevent this human tragedy from recurring.”
The report recalled that Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand had in May initially pushed overcrowded vessels away from their shores and prevented thousands of passengers from disembarking. Following international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to admit some asylum-seekers on condition that they be accepted for resettlement in another country by May 2016.
Southeast Asian states must act now or wait for another human rights disaster at sea, Amnesty said.
“Indonesia should be recognised for devoting resources to housing hundreds of vulnerable people in its Aceh province, and working to fulfill their basic needs in cooperation with local civil society and international agencies,” Amnesty said.
“But there are serious unanswered questions about a long-term solution, as the government has not clarified whether the refugees can stay beyond May 2016,” it said.