© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Southeast Asian Countries Agree To Step Up Efforts To Address Migrant Crisis


In Southeast Asia, countries are starting to work together to help those being called boat people, migrants abandoned by human traffickers. Leaders say they'll step up search and rescue efforts and work to prevent more migrants from coming in the future. As Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok, that last part may prove problematic.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The trafficking of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh has been going on for years, but this time things are different. Early this month, authorities found the graves of several dozen migrants in southern Thailand, prompting a crackdown on the illegal, but highly lucrative, trade, which prompted traffickers to abandon thousands of migrants at sea in rickety boats with limited food, fuel and water. More than 4,000 landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand before all three countries began pushing them back out to sea, most members of Myanmar's minority Muslim Rohingya community fleeing persecution in the country's western Rakhine State.

At today's meeting, there were a few signs of progress. Thailand said it would allow U.S. planes to conduct searches in Thai waters for those still believed to be stuck at sea, and the countries involved agreed to set up an anti-trafficking task force to prevent more people from coming.

CHRIS LEWA: I think I can say the positive side of this meeting today is the fact that, for the very first time, I think, you have a government in this region who actually discuss at least the issue of the Rohingya.

SULLIVAN: Chris Lewa heads the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group.

LEWA: Of course, the main problem is that the root cause, as far as I know, was not discussed at all. There was a proposal in the statement that came out today that, of course, the root cause needs to be addressed, that there is a need to provide more assistance in Rakhine State. But, for example, the issue of citizenship was not even mentioned. And, yeah, that's the downside.

SULLIVAN: The United Nations, the U.S. and almost everyone else agree that the issue of citizenship is key. And that's where things get tricky because Myanmar's government doesn't acknowledge that it's the root of the problem, as almost everyone else insists. Myanmar does not acknowledge the Muslim minorty Rohingya exist. The 1.2 million people who identify as Rohingya - stateless in Myanmar, even though their families have lived there for hundreds of years. Myanmar's representative at today's conference, Hitn Lynn, insisted this morning that his country is not to blame for the exodus at sea and that the spirit of cooperation was lacking at the opening session.

HITN LYNN: Finger-pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere.

SULLIVAN: Myanmar was reluctant to show up at today's meeting until the Thais agree that the word Rohingya not be used. Violence against the Rohingya in the past few years has left more than 140,000 in displacement camps, their movement restricted, their future bleak, and that's why they get on boats. Until that problem is addressed and the Rohingya granted citizenship, the U.N. and human rights groups say more boats will come. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.