Focus on Rohingya recognition
The international community must mount pressure on Myanmar so that it recognises Rohingyas as citizens, say immigration experts as Thailand hosts a regional meeting on "irregular migration" through the sea on May 29.
The meeting should also focus on smoothening legal ways of labour migration to Southeast Asian countries instead of having policies that tacitly support irregular labour mobility, they add.
Experts say Myanmar's denial of citizenship to the Rohingyas as well as lack of livelihood options for poor Bangladeshis has made it easy for the trans-national trafficking syndicates to prey on them.
As a result, the problem has turned into a humanitarian crisis since Thailand's discovery of mass graves on May 1. With Thailand's drives against human traffickers, boats crammed with an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar are now drifting in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits as the crew have abandoned them in fear of arrest and prosecution.
More than a hundred are reported to have died in the sea. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have rescued some 3,000 people in trouble from the sea but turned away the boats despite outrage from the UN, US and different rights bodies.
Against this backdrop, Thailand has decided to hold the "Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean" on May 29. Senior officials from 15 countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Cambodia, Laos, the US and Vietnam have been invited to the meet in Bangkok.
The UN and other regional rights bodies are going to attend the meet as observers, but Myanmar has hinted of skipping it.
Rights activists say the meeting is a laudable initiative, but the first and foremost act of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia now is to rescue the people on the sea and provide them with emergency care.
"This humanitarian crisis needs to be immediately and collectively resolved by all governments before more innocent lives are lost," said Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, coordinator of CARAMASIA, a Malaysia-based regional rights body on migrants.
Prof Dr Tasneem Siddiqui of political science at Dhaka University said human trafficking or illegal migration through the Bay of Bengal had been in place for many years, but no-one had been serious to address it.
As the issue had drawn national, regional and international attention, every country involved should be honest in their will to settle it in a sustainable manner, she added.
"Myanmar's discriminatory treatment of Rohingyas has aggravated the problem. So, the international community, especially ASEAN, has to put pressure on the country," Prof Tasneem observed.
Myanmar's stance that the Rohingyas had settled in the country from elsewhere and thus could not be granted citizenship was unacceptable, she said, adding: "The only option for Myanmar is to grant the Rohingyas citizenship."
Many employers in Malaysia and Thailand, especially in rubber plantation and fishing industries, harboured irregular migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh at low wages, creating a demand for them, she said.
"The Malaysian and Thai authorities must stop such practices and ensure that migrants are employed legally," she added.
The Thailand meet should form a high-level regional taskforce for all these reforms to be made, said Prof Tasneem, also chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit.
Prof Dr Imtiaz Ahmed of international relations at DU said the international community had not been strong enough to put pressure on Myanmar so far and this paradigm needed to change.
The Association for the Southeast Asian Nations had a lot to do in this regard, he added.
Turning on trafficking networks, Prof Imtiaz said when Thailand and Malaysia would take actions against criminals within their respective jurisdiction, Bangladesh should do the same.
He emphasised improving governance in Bangladesh's labour migration, saying change would not come if both the public and private sectors are involved in corruption.
"If Bangladeshi workers don't need big amounts to get jobs abroad, they would not take the risky sea route," he told The Daily Star.
Migrant rights activist Harun Al Rashid said all the countries involved needed to attend the upcoming Bangkok meet and adopt an action plan for a long-term solution.
Development partners should incorporate a precondition in their official development assistance that human rights would always be upheld and protected, he noted.
"The ASEAN and other developed countries should not consider business interests in dealing with Myanmar," he observed.