In early January, a boat with 185 Rohingya refugees ran aground on the coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh. They spent weeks at sea in desperate conditions, fleeing cramped and overcrowded camps in Bangladesh in search of a better life. More than half were women and children.
Unfortunately, they are far from alone. Since November last year, at least three other ships have docked in Aceh after similar perilous journeys, carrying hundreds of refugees and at least 20 people have died at sea. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thousands of Rohingya, including women and children, resorted to dangerous boat trips in 2022.
In Aceh, it is often local fishermen, driven by compassion for desperate refugees, who take it upon themselves to rescue ships stranded in the Andaman Sea. As a Rohingya who spent most of my life fighting to end the genocide against our people, I cannot be more grateful to the Acehnese for their selflessness and courage.
At the same time, it is unfortunate that ordinary people had to step in to do what governments in the region should do. From India to Indonesia, countries in South and Southeast Asia have for years turned a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya “people in boats,” denying refugees the chance to land on their shores and even pushing their vessels back out to sea.
It is illegal — a violation of the principle of non-refoulement under international law, which prohibits states from sending people back to places where they are at risk of serious human rights abuses. It is also immoral behavior and regional states must change course immediately to prevent the loss of even more lives at sea.
For years, the Rohingya people have been leaving in boats from Myanmar to escape the genocide we are facing in our home state of Rakhine. In recent years, more and more refugees from Bangladesh have risked their lives on dangerous sea voyages. Close to a million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh.
While the Bangladeshi government has generously offered safe haven to those fleeing, the camps are cramped and overcrowded, and the Rohingya have almost no opportunities for education or decent work. Traveling by boat is often a last-ditch, desperate attempt to build a dignified life elsewhere.
In 2015, Asia’s “shipping crisis” grabbed global headlines, as hundreds of refugees lost their lives at sea when governments cracked down on people-trafficking networks. After a relative lull in sea travel, the number has increased again in recent years. In 2022, UNHCR estimates, at least 1,920 Rohingya boarded boats – a sharp increase from 287 in 2021.
At least 119 people were reported dead or missing last year, not including a further 180 people presumed dead after their boat disappeared in December.
Sea conditions are terrible. Survivors described being stranded on cramped boats for several months, with little or no access to food, water or medicine. They are often abused and extorted by human traffickers, who in many cases charged the refugees their life savings for deck space.
While members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional governments have promised not to abandon refugees at sea, many among them – including India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – have effectively closed their borders to refugees. Sometimes they provided the bare minimum of food and medical care, only to push the boats back out to sea again.
The many deaths in 2022 and the harrowing stories of those who survived must serve as a wake-up call to regional states to take concrete and coordinated action once and for all. ASEAN must take a collective approach to maritime refugee operations that focuses on search and rescue and shares responsibility across borders. It is crucial that no one fleeing persecution is refused entry; instead, refugees should be given the shelter and medical care they need, while their right to seek asylum must be respected.
At the same time, member states of the Bali Process — an international mechanism established in 2002 in part to coordinate action against maritime refugees and human trafficking — must ensure the use of frameworks established to protect those fleeing violence and death. All 10 ASEAN members, as well as South Asian countries such as India, are part of the Bali Process. In 2016, after the “shipping crisis”, its members adopted the Bali Declaration, in which they pledged to strengthen cooperation in search and rescue efforts and finding legal routes for refugees. However, so far it has been little more than a promise on paper.
Currently, regional countries also refuse to confront the root cause of this crisis: the treatment of the Rohingya in their homeland, Myanmar.
As long as the Rohingya genocide continues, our people will feel compelled to risk their lives to find safety and dignity elsewhere. Even ASEAN members who have criticized Myanmar’s military since the 2021 coup attempt are involved in business with Myanmar, which helps fund the military and the crimes they commit against us. Instead they should support all international justice processes to hold Myanmar officials responsible for crimes against the Rohingya accountable.
So far, the fishermen of Aceh have shown the humanitarian leadership that ASEAN has shunned. All Rohingya are grateful for the compassion. Yet as long as ASEAN members turn a blind eye to the causes and consequences of the Rohingya crisis, the boats will keep coming and the suffering will continue.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.