Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people – ASEAN must act swiftly on humanitarian grounds

The current plight of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people is a humanitarian crisis of herculean proportions that is threatening to blow apart the unity of ASEAN members. This is not the time to engage in a blame game. Finger pointing by one party against another will only add to greater mutual acrimony.

All ASEAN members must for now set aside their nationalistic or parochial concerns and focus on the immediate task of helping save the thousands that are currently stranded in great need of food, medical care, and shelter.

There are no short cuts to solving a crisis of this nature involving boat people except a long-term strategic solution that must include swift and effective action on the part of maritime and security authorities.

In this regard, I fully support Malaysia’s leadership role as Chairman of ASEAN in 2015. As time is of the essence, Malaysia must call for an urgent and immediate meeting of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers (AFMM) to discuss the issue.

It is clear that Bangladesh is also a party to the crisis and it would only be right and proper that the AFMM invite the Bangladesh FM to join the meeting. The immediate objective of the AFMM will be to endorse a plan of action to avert the crisis from spiralling out of control.

I also urge Malaysia to concurrently respond to the urgent needs of the boat people in terms of safety, shelter and medical care and to mobilise the ASEAN countries for support. This is also the best time for civil society organisations to work hand in glove with the respective member countries in one giant humanitarian effort to relieve the plight of the boat people.

These are immediate concerns that must be resolved and, considering that Malaysia is the chair, I urge the Prime Minister to take the lead in these initiatives.

He must also ensure that, come November, the Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people issue is placed high on the agenda of the ASEAN leaders’ summit. Among other critical issues, resettlement, repatriation, and security matters will feature prominently. The question of the role of Myanmar and Bangladesh (as push countries) and Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (as recipient countries) must also be thoroughly resolved. Undoubtedly because of the geographical proximity, Malaysia and Indonesia will bear the brunt of the proliferation of refugee camps. Brunei and Singapore too must willy-nilly play some significant role towards the long-term solution.

In any event, these problems cannot and should not give us any excuse not to act or to retard our response to this growing humanitarian crisis.

MOHAMED AZMIN ALI