THE humanitarian crisis of unwanted migrants in rickety boats being pushed back repeatedly into open waters in the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca has abated for now. Malaysia and Indonesia have now agreed to search, rescue and shelter temporarily the boat people still at sea. Thailand has agreed to rescue these boats and "facilitate" their passage to shelters in Malaysia and Indonesia. Crucially, it is also hosting a conference tomorrow of some 15 countries as well as international organisations to address the issue of these migrants.
Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and economic migrants escaping grinding poverty in Bangladesh are falling prey to human traffickers. Hence, this meeting is coming not a moment too soon. Rohingya traversing the Bay of Bengal on boats during the dry season - with Malaysia as a key destination - has been an annual occurrence for many years now. But the discovery of more than 100 mass graves and dozens of jungle camps on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border has brought into sharp relief the ruthlessness of human traffickers at work in the region. They are apparently even resorting to torture to extract ransom from their victims' families.
The existence of the camps also points to complicity, perhaps on the part of corrupt locals in both Malaysia and Thailand. Indeed, it was Thailand's crackdown on human trafficking in its south that led to the current humanitarian crisis as people smugglers abandoned the boats at sea instead of landing them in Thailand and then smuggling the migrants overland into Malaysia and beyond. It is a grim situation that can no longer be ignored.
Resettling or repatriating the migrants and dealing with the criminal elements involved have to be a priority now. In particular, collective action to stem trafficking will be important so that the same tragedy does not occur during the next sailing season. Importantly, Asean has to rally all its members to see this as a crucial test for the organisation. A humanitarian crisis of this scale coupled with persistent human trafficking in its backyard must be met with resolute action to safeguard the grouping's credibility.
Much blame has rightly been laid at the door of Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya. Instead of baulking at what it sees as interference in its internal affairs, Naypyitaw should address the root of the problem squarely. Although its non-interference policy has served the grouping well, Asean has sufficient cause to make a concerted effort to deal with the Rohingya problem as it is affecting other countries and leaving a trail of cross-border crime and human misery. To look the other way would be unconscionable.