It’s shocking to learn that an estimated 6,000 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar are fighting for survival in the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are refusing to accept them to their respective shores.
While Myanmar disowns the Rohingya people drifting in the sea amid total uncertainty, Bangladesh seems not that much worried about its own people.
Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Shahidul Haque said they had no specific information.
“Different organisations are saying different things … but nothing specific. We have sought information from the UN to let us know the details,” he told The Daily Star over the phone yesterday.
Bangladesh also appears to say that most of the boatpeople are Rohingyas.
Now, the only thing left for the trafficking victims is death. And, they are dying.
A BBC correspondent on Thursday reported from alongside a vessel off the southern coast of Thailand that 10 migrants had died and their bodies were thrown overboard.
The fishing boat, carrying about 350 people, has been stranded for a week in the Andaman Sea after it was refused entry to Thailand. The crew abandoned them and disabled the engine. With no food or water, they are drinking their own urine.
The situation, undoubtedly, is the same on dozens of other such vessels that might have set out from the Bay of Bengal weeks before.
The reason why the crew left the boats is the fear of arrest in Thailand, which is conducting a hunt for human traffickers since early May following exhuming of some 33 bodies at its coastal jungle camps.
Imagine what would have happened if the mass graves were not discovered.
The practice that has been going on for some two decades would have remained the same. The vessels carrying the persecuted Rohingyas or hapless Bangladeshis land on Thai coasts. The traffickers take the boatpeople to jungle camps and torture them until their relatives pay handsome amounts for their release.
However, even after the payment, they are sold to other traffickers in Malaysia or fishing industry in Thailand.
Other than the traffickers, officials and local politicians in Thailand and Malaysia reportedly benefit from this clandestine “slave trade”.
Earlier, many Bangladeshis, who were pushed into Malaysia after paying ransom, had landed in jail, served sentences for intrusion and later deported. Those who were unable to pay ransom were tortured to death or forced to servitude.
It is difficult to estimate how many victims faced such deaths or servitude. But, the estimated 6,000 people, as reported by the IOM, who are now floating in the sea, can still be saved.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the US and rights bodies have requested Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to allow the boatpeople to their shores, conduct rescue operations and provide them with whatever is required for their survival.
The ball is in the three states’ court now.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said Southeast Asia’s growing refugee problem was due in large part to Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas and so he wanted to send a “very strong message” to Myanmar that they needed to treat their people with humanity.
He is right. But as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia never gave a “very strong message” to Myanmar on the decades-old issue.
So, sending a “very strong message” by pushing 6,000 people to death in the sea amid a humanitarian crisis can never be a good idea.
(Originally published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh.)