The beginning of the monsoon rains in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, coupled with the international spotlight on human traffickers in the region, appears to have slowed the flight of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar in recent weeks. But once the storms run their course, sometime around October, migrant departures could again erupt and create another humanitarian crisis in the region.
Regional governments, the United Nations, and the US government should use the intervening four months to begin addressing some of the root push-and-pull factors prompting the refugees to board the boats of traffickers in a risky effort to reach neighboring countries.
Thousands of western Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya, of which there are roughly 1 million, have fled the country each year by boat due to discrimination, dire poverty and lack of opportunity. Many of them have been trafficked to work on Thai fishing boats. Others have ended up on the Thai border before eventually being trafficked to Malaysia, where many have been able to find menial jobs.
In its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to Tier 3, the lowest rating, for not tackling human trafficking. Earlier this year, the European Union threatened to block Thai seafood imports unless the government demonstrates progress in ending the widespread use of forced labor in its fishing industry.
In response, Thailand launched a probe into human trafficking in early May that resulted in efforts to block migrant ships from landing on Thai shores. Within days, refugee workers warned that thousands of desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were drifting around the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits in unseaworthy boats, abandoned by smugglers and then refused landing by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
That emergency began to ease after May 20 when Malaysia and Indonesia announced that they would provide temporary refuge for the migrants stranded at sea and dispatch ships to look for them.
A critical issue that needs to be addressed in tackling the refugee crisis is the treatment of the Rohingya. The United Nations estimates that more than 130,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar by boat in the past three years, driven by abuse that has worsened as anti-Muslim sentiment boiled over after Myanmar launched political reforms. Scores died in conflicts with the Buddhist majority in 2012, and roughly 140,000 were rounded up in camps surrounded by barbed wire. The government, which insists that even those whose families have lived in Myanmar for generations are Bengalis, denies the Rohingya citizenship and restricts their right to travel.
Last month, Soe Thane, a presidential adviser who is considered a reformer, urged in an opinion piece in Japan’s Nikkei Weekly that the international community consider providing greater assistance to Rakhine State, where the Rohingya live, to help tackle the abject poverty that is driving many to leave. Investing in economic projects that would create jobs could reduce the numbers seeking to flee, the minister argued. And boosting the economic fortunes of the Buddhist Rakhine population could help assuage their grievances against the Rohingya.