Asean has resolved to clamp down on the human trafficking rings responsible for luring thousands of would-be migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar to make harrowing journeys to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
All 10 members of Asean yesterday attended an emergency ministerial meeting on the trafficking crisis. The group agreed to offer mutual legal assistance to ensure that all states "are well-equipped to prosecute perpetrators of the heinous crime".
The Singapore delegation was headed by Second Minister for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli. Officials from the US State Department and the United Nations refugee agency also attended the meeting.
Asean agreed to set up a trust fund to cover the cost of humanitarian and relief efforts. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that he had proposed that each country inject US$100,000 (S$135,000) as a start-up sum, and that Singapore had offered to pump in double the amount. The meeting also agreed to share intelligence to combat people smuggling and adopt an Asean Convention against Trafficking in Persons at a security ministers' meeting in September.
"Not just police, but immigration and (consular departments) and other enforcement agencies will cooperate not just in information sharing but actions to stamp out human trafficking," Datuk Seri Zahid told a press conference after chairing the meeting.
Although Malaysia, the Asean chair, has been the main destination of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and stateless Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, Mr Zahid said it is unfair to point the finger solely at Myanmar. Only a third of the boat arrivals are Rohingya. The rest come from Bangladesh and further up the Bay of Bengal, he said.
"Myanmar will work with other Asean countries in terms of law and surveillance and taking legal action against human trafficking syndicates. I am impressed with Myanmar," he said.
Myanmar itself has continued to reject calls to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, insisting they are really Bangladeshis. But Mr Zaid said claims of Rohingya fleeing persecution in the Rakhine province were "not discussed" as "we shouldn't be involved in their domestic matters". But he added that Myanmar knew it had to address the problem. As many as 7,000 people were left adrift in waters between Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in May, abandoned in boats by their smugglers fearing a crackdown by the authorities.
Mr Masagos said tough action should be taken against people smuggling and human trafficking syndicates, according to a statement from Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs.
"Source countries had to also do their part to reduce factors that pushed people to take risky ventures and fall victim to human trafficking syndicates," the statement quoted him as saying.
Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said yesterday that 18 suspects have been arrested since the discovery of 139 mass graves in Malaysia at the end of May.
Myanmar police have crippled a people smuggling ring , its transnational crime chief Soe Myaing said on the sidelines of yesterday's meeting. It nabbed 36 out of 39 suspects in cooperation with its Thai counterparts. The key man, a Thai married to a Myanmar woman, was arrested in Yangon.