The Nightmarish South-east Asian Migrant Crisis


Rohingya migrants were on a boat drift in Thai waters.  Pic courtesy:

Rohingya migrants were on a boat drift in Thai waters.
Pic courtesy:

Few days earlier, Malaysian National Police Chief confirmed to media that they have uncovered 139 mass graves in the dense jungles of northern Malaysia, close to Thailand border. In the first week of May, Thailand authorities found a system of jungle camps and mass graves near their border. These bloodcurdling discoveries are igniting serious concern about human trafficking around the South-east Asian region. The victims of the human traffickers are the persecuted Muslim ethnic minorities of Myanmar, known as ‘Rohingyas’ and the economic migrants of Bangladesh.

The traffickers bring boatloads of migrants through Bay of Bengal & Andaman Sea to South-east Asia and they are made to stay in camps, encompassing enclosures made of crude wooden fencing and covered with a tarpaulin. Activists claim that members of criminal syndicates (belonging to both Thailand & Malaysia) with the co-operation & complicity of authorities are carrying out the human smuggling trade. Many of the smuggling agents kidnaps Bangladeshis, holds them in the jungle or at sea, until their families paid a ransom. Migrants, fleeing from persecution and those who have survived the suffocating boat trip, are traded at a price. Many of the migrants perish to diseases and starvation.


The Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are trafficked through Thailand into Malaysia and Indonesia. The UN has warned the governments of Thai, Indonesia, and Malaysia that huge humanitarian disasters may further happen if the migrants boats are not allowed to land and into the custody of respective government authorities. But, these governments stay stern, claiming that they will not knowingly allow the migrant boats to land on their soil. Indonesia has even deployed warships to encounter the trafficking boats. Thailand has called for a regional conference on May 29th to deal with this crisis, but Myanmar said it won’t attend conferences, claiming it is no way responsible for this crisis.

Rohingyas of Myanmar are facing an increasingly intolerable situation at home, which has made at least 25,000 of them to flee to the South-east Asian countries in the first five months of 2015 alone. Myanmar is the home to more than 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, who are believed to be descendants of Arab traders. They have lived in the Rakhine state of Myanmar for generations, but the Myanmar government claim that they are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, who have arrived to their country only few decades before. Myanmar government continues to deny them citizenship and forces the Rohingyas to live in ghetto-like camp around Rakhine. Economically, they are severely limited and persecution of Buddhist extremists has spurred waves of violence in recent times.

Ashin Wirathu on Times magazine cover in the June 2013 edition (the magazine was banned in Myanmar immediately after this edition)

Ashin Wirathu on Times magazine cover in the June 2013 edition (the magazine was banned in Myanmar immediately after this edition)

The widespread discrimination and merciless government policy have not only made the Rohingyas stateless (in their own land), but they are also gradually pushed to be homeless. The military authorities of Myanmar have a clear-cut job of persecuting and pushing the Rohingyas out from their country. Radical Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu (called ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’) have launched anti-Muslim ‘969 campaign’, which breeds hate and urges all Buddhists boycott the Muslim Businesses in the Rakhine state. The Buddhist radicals believe that the Rohingya Muslims possess a great plan to change Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, into an Islamic state. Social media sites are used to spread Islamophobia, spreading rumors about a ‘jihad’ that could kill entire Myanmar’s Buddhist populace.

The military government (in fall Myanmar’s first democratic election is set to happen after five decades) rather than neutralizing the conflict, impose new restrictions on Rohingya Muslims, withholding access to more basics like healthcare and education. On May 19th, a new law was approved by Myanmar government, allowing local authorities or regional governments to introduce family planning regulations to lower-birth rate in the so-called migrants’ community (which clearly targets the Rohingya). Such harsh reforms and persecutions of the military rule leave no choice for the Myanmar Muslims, except to migrate to nearby Asian countries ($500 per person to make a trip to Malaysia). But, this is like trading one nightmare for another.

Rohingya migrants at a temporary shelter in Bayeun, Indonesia Pic Courtesy: New York Times

Rohingya migrants at a temporary shelter in Bayeun, Indonesia
Pic Courtesy: New York Times

Since taking office on 2009, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken all efforts to stop the Rohingya Muslims from entering into Bangladesh. There’s no denying that in the past two decades, Bangladesh has experienced positive economic and social changes, but it still remains in the long-list of developing countries. Despite the impressive GDP per capita growth in recent years, formal job creation in Bangladesh is said to be week and the annual overflow of Bangladeshis, traveling overseas in search of employment increased fourfold, which was driven largely by the need of less-skilled workers in Gulf Countries. Although the prospect of high earnings lures the young Bangladeshis, they face lot of abuses in the host countries (like late payment, lack of social protection & deplorable working conditions).

The appeal of better income in a foreign country would never fade from the minds of human beings, and so it is important for Bangladesh government to create more jobs & make the working environment more attractive, but Ms Sheikh Hasina’s statement on the migrant crisis is as coarse as anything we have ever heard from a national leader. She describe the economic migrants as ‘fortune-seekers’ tainting the national image. She also called those attempted to leave the country as ‘mentally sick’.

Rohingya men praying at their temporary shelter in Indonesia.

Rohingya men praying at their temporary shelter in Indonesia.

While Myanmar President Thein Sein (former military commander) is hailed as great reformer by British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama (on a recent trip to Myanmar, Obama fleetingly touched on the issue of Rohingyas), the countries’ migrants doesn’t get attention much attention internationally. Even if the migrants escape from the hands of dangerous traffickers, they would end up in detention camps and get caught within the bureaucratic limbo. The biggest step then would be to get recognized as a ‘refugee’. Migrants in Malaysia and Indonesia have even waited for 10 to 15 years for resettlement process, and in that period, the migrants could only make a living through informal jobs. No government aid is given to refugees in the waiting period.

Obama is praised across international media for talking about the Rohingya issue, but only an immense amount of pressure and campaign from activists made the President to raise the issue. Even US’ ambassador to Myanmar and other giant nations’ ambassadors felt it unnecessary to bring up the name ‘Rohingya’.


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