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ASEAN urged to overhaul response to Rohingya crisis

10-member bloc accused of doing 'almost nothing for years' to help asylum seekers

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ASEAN urged to overhaul response to Rohingya crisis

A boat carryingg Rohingya people from Myanmar arrives on the shorelines of Lancok village in Indonesia's North Aceh Regency on June 25. Nearly 100 Rohingya including 30 children were rescued from the rickety wooden boat. (Photo: AFP)

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The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been urged to urgently adopt concrete plans for addressing the crisis facing ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar.

The calls come as the leaders of the 10 countries convene virtually for the 36th ASEAN Summit on June 26.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Vietnam, as this year’s ASEAN chair, should lead efforts to improve regional cooperation and planning with concerned governments and United Nations agencies to uphold the rights of Rohingya.

“ASEAN leaders, having done almost nothing for years, should dramatically rethink their approach to the Rohingya crisis,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said on June 26.

“A coordinated regional response is desperately needed to protect Rohingya in Myanmar, in refugee camps abroad and at sea, while pressing Myanmar to take the steps necessary for them to return home safely.”

The rights group said that from January to March numerous boats, each with hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers, left overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh for Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have been pushing the boats back to sea, leaving hundreds of refugees in life-threatening conditions without access to adequate food and water for months.

Malaysian authorities recently detained 269 Rohingya asylum seekers whose boat arrived damaged off the coast of Langkawi.

On June 25, off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province, fishermen and officials rescued a stranded boat of 94 Rohingya asylum seekers including as many as 30 children.

At least one boat with hundreds of Rohingya remains at sea after being pushed back multiple times by the Malaysian coast guard.

Malaysia reported that since May 1 it had blocked the arrival of 22 boats, claiming to have increased border control in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The rights group said that given the hazards of maritime flight, Rohingya have increasingly fled Myanmar overland at the Thai border. Thai authorities arrested at least 35 Rohingya asylum seekers near the border in May and indicated they would forcibly return them once Covid-19 eases without assessing their protection claims.

HRW said Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia should end their policies of maritime pushbacks and instead undertake coordinated efforts to respond to boats in distress, enact search and rescue operations, bring boats ashore to the nearest safe port, and provide humanitarian aid.

ASEAN has discussed the crisis in various forums since August 2017 but has largely ignored Myanmar government threats to the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine state. It has also failed to support efforts to investigate the military’s crimes and pursue accountability.

The bloc has prioritized a hasty repatriation of Rohinga over ending abuses and providing justice for the Rohingya, as it did during a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on June 24.

HRW said ASEAN’s repatriation policy should entail pressing Myanmar to meet all conditions necessary for voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable returns, including granting the Rohingya freedom of movement and citizenship.

HRW has called on ASEAN to collectively press Myanmar “to end rights violations in Rakhine state, grant unfettered access to aid organizations and independent monitors, and address the underlying causes of the crisis.”

ASEAN has avoided criticizing Myanmar for the way it has treated the Rohingya. The United Nations has termed the military’s crackdown on this minority group of Muslims a form of genocide but ASEAN has opted to focus instead on providing humanitarian assistance.

More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the wake of the crackdown that began in August 2017 following attacks on security personnel by Rohingya militants. Many are still struggling to survive in overcrowded refugee camps lacking basic amenities.

Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will join the June 26 ASEAN summit virtually from Naypyitaw, the country’s remote capital city.

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