Thailand urges international action on flood of refugees

The move comes after Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia used their respective navies to block migration on the Indian Ocean. Hundreds trapped at sea lost their lives. 

AP Photo/Vincent Thian
Migrants ride on a truck as they are transferred from a temporary detention facility to a naval base on Langkawi island, Malaysia, in May, before being moved to a detention center on the Malaysian mainland. A crisis involving boatloads of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea deepened as Malaysia said it would turn away any more of the crowded, wooden vessels unless they were sinking.

Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai urged unity among Southeast Asian nations contending with a flood of migration from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

During a forum Friday in Bangkok, Mr. Don said a more robust and integrated effort would be needed to deal with the tens of thousands of people who brave perilous journeys to find refuge every year.

"It's clear that we need an explicit and efficient mechanism to manage and control the negative impacts of irregular migration," the minister said in opening remarks to the international assembly, according to Reuters.

The meeting was the second held since May after Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia closed their borders using naval blockades, resulting in more than 4,000 migrants being trapped at sea. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), hundreds of desperate refugees were lost on the open waters, as well as in jungle camps.

During the meeting on “irregular migration” William Lacy Swing, the IOM’s director general, indicated those kinds of actions would need to be reversed to assuage the crisis. He instead encouraged a more measured approach, through short-term and seasonal work visas and temporary refuge.

“Migration is not a problem to be solved, but a phenomenon to be managed.” Swing said.

Mr. Swing noted 8,000 people were stranded at sea during the blockade’s peak, and says plans for regional cooperation would help offset future catastrophes. Obstructing the migrants from reaching shore led unscrupulous traffickers to abandon the migrants, according to Reuters.

“Bad policies are unintentionally subsidizing the smugglers,” Swing said. “We need to reduce the drivers of desperation, because it is scandalous that we are losing 5,000 migrants globally every year. It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Many of the refugees come from Myanmar, where roughly 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing government-backed ethnic oppression. Bangladeshis have also been pouring out of their impoverished country. The most active smuggling period takes place in October and November, Reuters said.

Swing also called for long-term solutions, noting that a legal framework would need to be reached to further curb human smuggling.

"The time for promises has passed," Don said. “Now is the time for action. Therefore, it's my hope that today's discussion will result in concrete and goal-oriented actions that countries can start implementing, not in some distant future, but today and now."

“If you give us full access, we can often help you to understand the needs,” Swing told the congregation that included international organizations and government representatives from Australian, Indonesian, Malaysia, Bangladeshi, Myanmar, and Thailand. 

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