Indonesia says migrant crisis is regional problem

A group of Aceh students hold a protest rally against their country's official policy to reject further Rohinya refugees by pushing them back out to sea, in Banda Aceh, northern Sumatra, Indonesia on May 19, 2015. -- PHOTO :EPA
A group of Aceh students hold a protest rally against their country's official policy to reject further Rohinya refugees by pushing them back out to sea, in Banda Aceh, northern Sumatra, Indonesia on May 19, 2015. -- PHOTO :EPA

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia said Tuesday a migrant boat crisis was a problem for all of Southeast Asia ahead of key regional talks, as Jakarta and other countries came under more pressure to let the boatpeople land.  

Nearly 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have made it to shore in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in recent days after a Thai crackdown disrupted people-trafficking routes, prompting operators of rickety boats to dump their human cargo.  

Those who have arrived were either abandoned on the coast or in shallow waters, or rescued from sinking boats, with the three nations sparking outrage by turning away vessels deemed still seaworthy.  

Thousands more migrants are believed to be stranded at sea without food or water, and international pressure is growing for Southeast Asian nations to open their ports to the vessels, with the United Nations and the US both calling for swift action.  

Fears were growing for hundreds of Rohingya migrants on a boat which was bounced between waters off Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and which has not been heard from in more than 60 hours.  

Around 300 men, women and children were found pleading for help Thursday on the drifting trawler.  

The region has faced criticism for its timid diplomacy, particularly its failure to curb what is seen as Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s systematic abuse of its unwanted Rohingya people, which has sent masses of the Muslim ethnic minority fleeing abroad.  Myanmar insists the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, for whom it is not responsible.  

In recent years an increasing number of Bangladeshis have also joined the Rohingya exodus across the Bay of Bengal, seeking to escape grinding poverty in their homeland.

Ahead of talks with her Malaysian and Thai counterparts in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi signalled the crisis was the responsibility of the whole region.  

Around half the new migrant arrivals have been in Indonesia’s western province of Aceh, and horrific tales have emerged of smugglers abusing migrants and deadly fights erupting on board overcrowded, abandoned vessels.

“The migrant issue is not a problem of one or two countries but a regional one,” she told reporters in Jakarta. “It happens in other places as well, it is actually an international issue.” Marsudi noted that Indonesia was currently hosting 12,000 migrants from more than 40 countries awaiting resettlement, adding: “What Indonesia has done is more than we should have... done”.  

Indonesia, like Thailand and Malaysia, is not a signatory to a key UN convention that would oblige it to resettle a certain number of refugees.  

Philippines ready to help

But asked whether Indonesia would press Myanmar to take more responsibility, she said there would only be “constructive engagement” with it on the issue, highlighting the region’s reluctance to take a harder line with the former army-run nation.  

Relatively prosperous and mainly Muslim Malaysia, the favoured destination of most migrants, pressed Myanmar at the weekend to engage in talks on the issue.  

Myanmar on Monday acknowledged international “concerns” about the boatpeople but denied it is solely to blame and is yet to indicate whether it will attend a forthcoming regional summit in Thailand on the issue.  

The Philippines said it was ready to help the boatpeople, offering hopes of a potential solution as its neighbours push the migrants away.  

Manila is obliged to help the migrants, many of whom are fleeing persecution, because it is party to the UN refugee convention, foreign affairs department spokesman Charles Jose said. The government did not elaborate on what help might be extended.  

In a bid to spur greater action, the UN high commissioners for refugees and human rights, the UN chief’s special representative for international migration and development, and the head of the International Organization for Migration issued a joint plea.  

“We strongly urge the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to protect migrants and refugees stranded on vessels in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, to facilitate safe disembarkation, and to give priority to saving lives, protecting rights, and respecting human dignity,” they said.