As countries in Southeast Asia dither and argue with each other about how to handle the thousands of Rohingya migrants currently stranded on the seas, the migrants’ condition presumably is getting worse. Most of their boats are barely seaworthy, their conditions on board are often horrendous, and they frequently lack proper food and water. The United Nations has warned that the boats could become “floating coffins.” When a New York Times reporter came across a boat of migrants in the Andaman Sea last week, he noted that hundreds were crammed aboard the wooden fishing vessel, with no one to guide them. They “had been on the boat for three months ... The boat’s captain and crew abandoned them six days ago. Ten passengers died during the voyage, and their bodies were thrown overboard,” the Times reported.
Southeast Asian nations and other regional powers can work together to ensure that Rohingya who are out at sea are not abused, sold into slavery, or left to die on the open waters. All Southeast Asian nations could immediately stop pushing boats carrying Rohingya back to sea. The United States, Australia, India, and Singapore, which have the best navies in the region, could work together to lead more comprehensive search and rescue operations in Southeast Asian waters, to ensure that boats carrying Rohingya are found. In addition, Southeast Asian nations could more effectively share intelligence to crack down on human trafficking, to prevent migrants out at sea from vanishing into traffickers’ networks. Currently, police and navies in the region rarely share information about trafficking.
A second step toward addressing the crisis would involve all Southeast Asian nations coming together and adopting a plan that facilitates the resettlement of Rohingya currently at sea into other countries in the region. Not all countries would take equal shares of Rohingya. As Klaus Neumann, an expert on comparative approaches to refugees at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, notes, the European Commission has recently proposed a strategy for dealing with migrants to Europe under which, he notes, “asylum seekers would be distributed equitably across member states, with each being required to accommodate and process a certain proportion. Neumann adds, “A complicated formula, which takes into account a [European Union] country’s economic performance, its unemployment rate, its population, and the number of asylum applications and resettled refugees would be used to arrive at these percentage figures” of how many migrants each EU member takes in.
The numbers of Rohingya at sea now are far less than the numbers of refugees coming ashore in southern Europe, but the same general principles could be applied in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian countries each could take in a certain number of Rohingya, and that figure would be calculated from a range of factors. Although the European Union is far wealthier, overall, most of the countries in Southeast Asia, and outside actors, such as the United States, Japan, and wealthy Persian Gulf nations, could potentially donate to a fund designed to help pay for Rohingya resettlement, lessening the financial burden for poorer Southeast Asian nations or ones likely to take in the largest numbers of Rohingya, like Indonesia.
Ultimately, an effective long-term strategy would be one that reduced the number of Rohingya setting out to sea in the first place. Such a strategy would require the cooperation of the Myanmar government, which has thus far denied that it is even to blame for the crisis currently unfolding; and, it would require significant change in the political environment in Myanmar. Right now, the threat of violence against Rohingya in Myanmar remains so severe that many seem to believe that getting on crowded and rickety boats and putting out into the open waters is a safer bet than staying in Myanmar and facing anti-Muslim violence. Unless the Myanmar government takes a tougher approach to the paramilitary groups targeting Rohingya, and accepts that many Rohingya families have lived in Southeast Asia for generations and have the right to live in Myanmar (rather than planning to deport them if they cannot prove decades of residence in Myanmar), it is likely that Rohingya will continue trying to flee.