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When fishermen rescue migrants – and nations

In Southeast Asia, acts of empathy by fishermen in saving refugees adrift at sea help soften the hard stance of Indonesia and Malaysia. They are fishers of both people and goodwill.

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    Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants wait on a fishing boat May 20 before being transported to Julok in Indonesia's Aceh province.
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By the very nature of their profession, the fishermen of Southeast Asia are often quite low in social status. Yet in recent weeks, a number of them have led a quiet revolution in the region. 

With an empathy born of their humility, they have rescued hundreds of people fleeing persecution or acute poverty in Myanmar and Bangladesh. By their example, they helped force Indonesia and Malaysia to stop turning away the boat people and provide temporary shelter. Thailand, too, has been forced to show more compassion.

“Looking at these people, me and my friends cried because they looked so hungry, so thin ... How can we not help destitute people like this? It would be a big sin,” Indonesian fisherman Muchtar Ali told the French news agency after he rescued some 400 Rohingya asylum seekers in the Andaman Sea.

Another fisherman, named Suryadi, told The Guardian: “If we find someone in the ocean we have to help them no matter who they are. The police did not like us helping but we could not avoid it. Our sense of humanity was higher.”

These acts of individual courage and compassion are a reminder that people should not be divided over the politics of migration if it means losing sight of the immediate needs of people adrift on the high seas and in destitute conditions. A similar situation has been happening in the Mediterranean, with tales of commercial ships rescuing migrants on floundering boats.

To be sure, long-term solutions must be found to help Bangladesh overcome its poverty while Buddhist-majority Myanmar (also known as Burma) must end its discrimination against the Muslim minority of Rohingya (an estimated 120,000 have fled, many by sea). Yet when faced with an urgent humanitarian crisis, the nations of Southeast Asia must do better than push out or “push back” such refugees. 

Only three countries in the region, Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste, have joined the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, which requires them to provide shelter to people fleeing their own lands. Now perhaps all members of the 10-nation grouping of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will sign on. A good first step is a summit planned by Thailand to deal with one driver of this wave of migration: human traffickers. The reports of mass killings of migrants by traffickers will require better coordination in the region. 

The leaders of Asean have some history of nudging each other to reform. Following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Myanmar was persuaded to accept international aid despite its desire for self-sufficiency. With this crisis, the country’s majority Burmese must learn to accept minority groups, such as the Rohingya.

For now, Southeast Asia’s models of compassion are its fishermen. The least among these nations have become the greatest. They are fishers of people, pulling people from the sea while also setting an example for entire countries.

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