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Asia Pacific: lack of regional cooperation leaves Rohingya in dire straits
19 May 2015

Rohingya refugees wait with uncertainty after arriving by boat to Langsa, East Aceh, Indonesia on 15 April 2015 (Nasruddin / Forum Peduli Rakyat Miskin)
The choice for the region is either to let the Rohingya remain faceless and alone or to act, cooperating on a regional level to ensure human dignity comes first.
Bangkok, 19 May 2015 – For decades, countries in the Asia Pacific region have closed their borders to Rohingya migrants, leaving little space for protection. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is deeply concerned with the rapidly deteriorating situation the Rohingya are facing in the region and calls for urgent regional cooperation to find a solution.

Rejecting people seeking asylum at the border, be it by land or sea, is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, or not expelling those who have the right to international protection. Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project – which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade – said as many as "8,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers could be parked on boats in the Malacca Straits," unable to come ashore in Malaysia and Thailand.

The New York Times reports the total number of people at sea could be as high as 20,000.

"Hospitality and solidarity are two principle human values which grow through human interaction and accompaniment of those who are marginalised. It is time we take the challenge to protect the lives of those who are suffering seriously," said Bambang A. Sipayung SJ, director of JRS Asia Pacific.

Malaysia and Thailand have taken a first step and announced a joint meeting at the end of this month to allow bilateral approaches to be discussed on the issue of the Rohingya and human trafficking between the neighboring countries.

As the Rohingya arrive in Indonesia, the UN refugee agency, civil society and the local government are providing clothing, nutrition and other support to ensure immediate needs are met. While these domestic initiatives are a good start, they do not compensate for the lack of a unified regional approach.

Countries in the region should uphold their commitments to the Jakarta Declaration. Point seven of the declaration states:

"We underlined the importance of identifying practical ways to strengthen cooperation among affected states in managing irregular maritime movement, including through the development of a protection-sensitive regional approach."

Furthermore, the declaration points to courses of action to protect migrants under point C, including "mobilizing necessary resources towards efficient management of irregular migration and victim protection" and "enhancing communication and coordination to support search and rescue at sea, disembarkation, reception, processing, and outcomes" among other recommendations which JRS urges the signatories to implement.

States and regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must extend protection to the most vulnerable, such as the Rohingya.

"We are seeing a dire situation in ASEAN," said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian legislator and member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. "ASEAN leaders cannot and should not hide behind the notion of non-interference," he said, calling the flow of refugees fleeing Myanmar a "human catastrophe."

Now is the time to stand in solidarity with the Rohingya and other migrants who have long been suffering from rejection and persecution. Letting them suffer and die at sea reflects poorly on the ASEAN community as a whole. The choice for the region is either to let the Rohingya remain faceless and alone or to act, cooperating on a regional level to ensure human dignity comes first.

Nick Jones, Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific Advocacy and Communications Officer

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