Migrant Crisis: Nations Promise Action

Htin Lynn, head of Myanmar’s delegation, addresses the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in Bangkok, May 29, 2015. [AFP]

By Pimuk Rakkanam

Myanmar joined 16 other nations in Bangkok on Friday in agreeing to address the root causes of a Southeast Asian illegal migration crisis, but the head of its delegation said his country should not solely be blamed as a source of the problem.

"Each and every sovereign state has its own challenges,” Htin Lynn, special representative of Myanmar’s foreign ministry, told a special meeting on irregular migration.

“Some of them, if not all, fall within the domestic jurisdiction ... Finger pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere," he said, adding that on "this issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country."

Htin was responding to comments earlier in the day from Volker Turk, the assistant high commissioner for protection at the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

"There is no solution without addressing the root causes...,” Turk had said. “Among other things, this will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar towards all its people.”

“Granting of citizenship is the ultimate goal and we welcome some initial steps that were taken in this regard,” he had added. “In the interim, a legal status for all habitual residents recognizing that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required."

‘Sad reality’

Southeast Asia has faced a humanitarian crisis this month as more than 3,000 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have come ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Myanmar’s western Rakhine state is the traditional home of Rohingyas, but many are fleeing persecution in the Buddhist-dominated country, whose government does not recognize them as citizens.

Leaders of neighboring countries most impacted by the surge in illegal migration refrained from direct criticism of Myanmar, in keeping with a regional policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states.

"This current crisis highlights the sad reality that people are still compelled to leave their homes and loved ones due to diverse causes,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn told the gathering.

“Irregular migration has become increasingly complex and demands comprehensive solutions. We must not solve one problem just to find out later that it has, in fact, created another," he added.

On May 20, Thanasak joined his Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts at a trilateral meeting in Malaysia to discuss the matter, but the two other foreign ministers were no-shows at Friday’s meeting hosted by Thailand.

A crackdown on human trafficking by Thailand’s military-controlled government earlier this month forced boatloads of illegal migrants to sail farther south in search of landing points.

On Friday, Myanmar’s navy seized a boat packed with 727 illegal migrants off the country’s southern coast, according to news reports.

‘A sense of security and belonging’

The frontline states of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh on Friday joined other affected countries in agreeing to share resources to combat human trafficking and to step up efforts to help thousands of illegal migrants stranded at sea.

But the agreement made no mention of the word “Rohingya.”

Host-country Thailand and delegations from 16 Asian and Pacific nations pledged to establish a joint task force and share intelligence on people-smuggling, intensify maritime search-and-rescue operations for migrants’ boats, as well as address “root causes” of irregular migration.

Myanmar, Bangladesh and Indonesia agreed to help to improve the livelihood of “at-risk communities”.

According to a clause that spells this out, such improvements would include providing development aid to at-risk areas, as well as “enhancing a sense of security and belonging, promoting full respect of human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services, such as housing, education and healthcare.”

In Indonesia, meanwhile, government officials announced that they would move to deport hundreds of Bangladeshi migrants who had come ashore on western Sumatra island this month.

Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque, who led his country’s delegation at the meeting in Bangkok, said those citizens would be repatriated within a month.

U.S., Australian assistance

The meeting in Bangkok also produced commitments of financial assistance from the United States and Australia to help stem the crisis.

The American government said it would commit U.S. $3 million toward humanitarian efforts by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Australia committed AU $5 million to promote livelihood and development programs in Rakine and in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees are concentrated.

"What we need to do is look at ways to save lives, keep people safe, and then try to make changes at the source so that people don't feel the need to flee and turn to criminal gangs for their transportation needs,” Anne C. Richard, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told the meeting.

"We all are really hoping that people who have fled Burma [Myanmar] can go home and live in a peaceful, stable, democratic Burma."

On Friday, the U.S. military also received permission from Thailand’s government to conduct reconnaissance flights in Thai airspace to search for stranded migrants’ boats.

Shahriar Sharif and Nurdin Hasan contributed to this report.