Rohingya are drowning at sea. Asia’s leaders are to blame

Leaders from Southeast and South Asia are acting both illegally and immorally by not helping Rohingya “boat people”.

Rohingya refugees
FILE — Rohingya refugees fleeing a genocide in Myanmar and overcrowded conditions in Bangladesh camps, often spend months at sea, exploited by traffickers because governments in South and Southeast Asia won't let their boats land. This photo from June 25, 2020, shows Rohingya refugees in Lhokseumawe in North Aceh Regency [Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

In early January, a boat with 185 Rohingya refugees washed ashore on the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. They had spent weeks at sea in desperate conditions, fleeing cramped and overcrowded camps in Bangladesh in search of a better life. More than half were women and children.

Sadly, they are far from alone. Since November last year, at least three more boats have landed in Aceh after similarly perilous journeys, carrying hundreds of refugees, with at least 20 people dying at sea. According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thousands of Rohingya, including women and children, resorted to perilous boat journeys in 2022.

In Aceh, it is often local fishermen, driven by compassion for desperate refugees, who have taken it upon themselves to rescue boats stranded in the Andaman Sea. As a Rohingya who has campaigned to end the genocide against our people for most of my life, I could not be more grateful to the Acehnese for their selflessness and bravery.

At the same time, it is deplorable that common people have had to step in to do what governments in the region are supposed to do. From India to Indonesia, states in South and Southeast Asia have for years turned a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya “boat people”, refusing refugees a chance to land on their shores and even pushing their vessels back to sea.

This is illegal — a violation of the non-refoulement principle under international law bans nations from sending people back to where they are at risk of serious human rights violations. It is also immoral behaviour, and regional states must change course immediately to prevent even more lives from being lost at sea.

Rohingya people have taken to boats from Myanmar for years to escape the genocide we are facing in our native Rakhine state. In recent years, it is increasingly refugees from Bangladesh who have risked their lives on dangerous sea journeys. Close to one million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh.

While the Bangladeshi government has generously offered a safe haven to those fleeing, the camps are cramped and overcrowded, and Rohingya have almost no opportunities to get an education or a decent job. A boat journey is often a last, desperate attempt to build a life of dignity elsewhere.

In 2015, the Asian “boat crisis” gripped global headlines, as hundreds of refugees lost their lives at sea when governments cracked down on human trafficking networks. After a relative lull in sea journeys, numbers have picked up again in recent years. In 2022, UNHCR estimates, at least 1,920 Rohingya took to boats – a sharp increase from 287 in 2021.

At least 119 people were reported dead or missing last year, not including a further 180 people who are presumed dead after their boat went missing in December.

Conditions at sea are horrendous. Survivors have described being stranded on cramped boats for several months, with little or no access to food, water or medicine. They are often abused and extorted by human traffickers, who in many cases have charged refugees their life savings for deck space.

While members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional governments have promised not to abandon refugees at sea, many among them — including India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — have in reality sealed their borders to refugees. Sometimes, they have provided a minimum of food and medical care, only to push boats back to sea again.

Many deaths in 2022, and the harrowing stories of those who survived, must serve as a wake-up call for regional states to once and for all take concrete and coordinated action. ASEAN must take a collective approach to maritime refugee operations that focus on search and rescue and share responsibility across borders. It is crucial that no one fleeing persecution is refused entry; instead, refugees should be given the shelter and medical care they need, while their right to seek asylum must be respected.

At the same time, member states of the Bali Process — an international mechanism set up in 2002 in part to coordinate action on maritime refugee and human trafficking – must ensure that they make use of the frameworks established to protect those fleeing violence and death. All 10 members of ASEAN as well as South Asian nations like India are a part of the Bali Process. In 2016, after the “boat crisis”, its members adopted the Bali Declaration where they pledged to strengthen cooperation on search and rescue efforts and on finding legal pathways for refugees. So far, however, this has amounted to little more than a paper promise.

At the moment, regional countries are also refusing to face up to the root cause of this crisis: the treatment of the Rohingya in their home country, Myanmar.

As long as the genocide against Rohingya continues, our people will feel compelled to risk their lives to find safety and dignity elsewhere. Even ASEAN members who have criticised the Myanmar military since the attempted coup in 2021 engage in business with Myanmar, which helps fund the military and the crimes they commit against us. They should instead support all international justice processes to hold Myanmar officials responsible for crimes against the Rohingya to account.

So far, Aceh’s fishermen have shown the humanitarian leadership that ASEAN has shunned. All Rohingya are grateful for their compassion. Yet as long as ASEAN members turn a blind eye to the causes and consequences of the Rohingya crisis, the boats will keep coming and the suffering will continue.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.