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Asean pressured over Rohingya crisis ahead of summit

Regional bloc urged to protect refugees and prevent another boat crisis as sailing season approaches

Asean pressured over Rohingya crisis ahead of summit

Rohingya refugees cross a shallow canal after crossing the Naf River as they flee violence in Myanmar to reach Bangladesh in Palongkhali near Ukhia on Oct. 16, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

Humanitarian organizations and regional parliamentarians have weighed in on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to protect refugees and prevent another Rohingya boat crisis.

Ahead of the 37th Asean Summit from Nov. 12-15, 16 agencies including Save the Children, World Vision and Lutheran World Federation said women, men and children could soon again risk their lives on perilous journeys at sea with the monsoon period ending and a new sailing season approaching.

At least 2,400 refugees had taken to boats in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal since January, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

It said more than one third of the refugees are children. The vast majority are Rohingya leaving from camps in Bangladesh — many of them victims of human traffickers — who had earlier fled violence and persecution in Myanmar.

According to UNHCR, conditions on the boats are deplorable, with a lack of food, water and no health care, while survivors spoke of beatings and other abuses by traffickers on board.

The groups said this year several boats carrying refugees were denied disembarkation in countries including Malaysia and Thailand, and instead were pushed back out to sea.

“As the new sailing season is approaching, Asean member states must take a comprehensive and coordinated approach to protect vulnerable people,” the agencies said in a statement on Nov. 11.

It said Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are all members of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, which encourages a regional and coordinated approach to disembarkation.

Current and former parliamentarians have urged the bloc to play a positive role in resolving the ongoing crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Mercy Barends, an Indonesian MP and board member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said that while they welcome the bloc playing a proactive role in the Rakhine crisis, there is so much more it can do to help bring it to a resolution.

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“It is time for Asean to articulate a coordinated and long-term strategy that addresses the root causes of this crisis. Failure to do so will risk causing further harm and suffering for the Rohingya and all other communities in Rakhine,” Barends said in a statement on Nov. 11.

APHR said that three years since a military crackdown forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Myanmar’s government has not taken any meaningful steps to address the root causes of the crisis.

It said refugees are still making perilous journeys by sea, while inside Myanmar about 600,000 Rohingya are still facing discriminatory restrictions imposed by the government, deprived of their rights to citizenship, freedom of movement and access to essential services.

The lawmakers make a number of recommendations to Asean about how it can play a proactive and positive role in resolving the crisis, including by promoting transparency in its decisions and ensuring meaningful consultation with the Rohingya, refugee communities and civil society actors.

They also called on Asean to strengthen the capacity of its institutions to respond to "man-made disasters" such as the one in Rakhine where an intensifying armed conflict between the military and the Arakan Army threatens the safety of thousands of civilians from all communities.

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