World must unite to end the abuse of Rohingya migrants

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 2:38am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 8:41am

Challenges abound for the regional summit in Bangkok tomorrow on the Rohingya refugee crisis. Myanmar's government, responsible for policies leading to the Muslim ethnic group's persecution and flight, has decided to attend after being persuaded against a boycott. Indonesia and Malaysia have resumed giving temporary shelter to thousands of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis stranded at sea and offers to help are coming in from others, among them the US and the Philippines. But the discovery of dozens of mass graves and abandoned detention camps along the Malaysia-Thai border make clear the complexities are such that many meetings lie ahead before a solution can be found.

The initial crisis has been averted after the Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai foreign ministers agreed to stop their navies pushing incoming boats back to sea. Search and rescue missions are under way, financial assistance is being pledged and offers to provide asylum to those screened out by the UN have started coming in. But the wider problem is years-old, not recent; Myanmar's refusal to give citizenship to the Rohingyas - it does not even recognise them among its 135 ethnic groups - has prompted the UN to term them among the world's most persecuted people. Amid growing nationalism in the Buddhist-majority country, violence has led to the estimated 1.1 million minority, largely in the western state of Rakhine, being isolated and having limited access to education, health care and jobs.

Unsurprisingly, tens of thousands have sought a better life in Malaysia and Indonesia and that has led many to fall into the hands of traffickers. Transitional camps uncovered earlier this month in southern Thailand by the Thai military, which made arrests and put Rohingyas and Bangladeshi job-seekers it rescued on boats and cast them to sea, sparked an international outcry and call for action. The discoveries in Malaysia reveal the cruelty of the traffickers, extent of their smuggling network and the suspected involvement of corrupt officials.

Pressuring Myanmar to change its policies has to be a priority for fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, governments at the summit and countries supporting its move towards democracy. The trafficking gangs have to be dismantled. Nations, especially in the West, have a vital role to play in ensuring that those granted asylum can have a new life. Only by working together can the world ensure that the years of abuse and neglect of the Rohingyas ends.