International organizations have commended Malaysia and Indonesia's announcement to offer temporary shelter to 7,000 migrants adrift at sea as a potential breakthrough in the migrant crisis. But many questions remain.
In reaction to increasing international pressure, Malaysia and Indonesia said on Wednesday, May 20, they would no longer be pushing back migrant vessels seeking to reach their shores.
At a joint press conference with his Indonesian and Thai counterparts, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said: "The towing and the shooing (away of boats) is not going to happen," adding both nations had agreed to let up to 7,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea come ashore and temporarily stay in their territory.
Pointing to limited resources, however, they called on the rest of the world for help: "We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community," the minister added. Thailand said it would provide humanitarian assistance, but would not be able to take in the refugees just yet.
Before the announcement, some 3,000 migrants from impoverished Bangladesh and Myanmar had been rescued or washed ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia.
'The towing and the shooing (away of boats) is not going to happen,' said Malaysian FM Anifah Aman (C) at a joint press conference with his Indonesian (R) and Thai counterparts (L)
The latest move is seen as a potential breakthrough in what many regarded as a humanitarian crisis triggered by the two nations', along with Thailand's, refusal to allow vessels overloaded with starving migrants to land.
Their rickety boats had reportedly been abandoned by people smugglers between the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits, leaving the desperate migrants to fend for themselves for days without adequate food, water, or sanitation. It is believed that most of them were initially trying to reach Malaysia but recent the crackdown against human traffickers in Thailand, which has long been considered a regional hub for human trafficking, made traffickers reluctant to bring people ashore.
This is why the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) welcomed the commitment announced the foreign ministers as "an important initial step in the search for solutions to this issue, and vital for the purpose of saving lives."
Jeffrey Labovitz, Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Thailand, also praised the decision by the Malaysian and the Indonesian governments as "good news."
Labovitz told DW that the announcement, which facilitates safe disembarkation and gives priority to saving lives, reflects that these "countries are keen on addressing the root causes of the trafficking problem and working together with the international community."
Some 430 people have already been rescued from their boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels, according to local officials.
The crisis had been triggered by these nation's refusal to allow vessels overloaded with starving migrants to land
But as Labovitz also points out that the key priority at the moment is to find the many boats that are still out at sea and bring them to shore. "The longer their ordeal lasts the worse it gets," he said, pointing to the fact that water supplies can get contaminated with fecal matter, and sea sickness can cause quick dehydration.
UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan agrees: "It is now urgent for people to be brought ashore without delay, and that immediate first aid and other care is provided for all who are in need. We look forward to seeing this happen without delay," Tan told DW.
Refugees or migrants?
But there is also the issue of whether the thousands people believed to be aboard these boats should be sent back to Myanmar or Bangladesh or resettled to a third country within a year.
Labovitz explained that the international community is willing to help to determine as quickly as possible how many of those rescued economic migrants or legitimate refugees are in need of international protection. This, in turn, will pave the way for determining the long-term implications, including where they can go - back home, a third country or stay where they are, he added.
According to Tan, in this context that countries in the region will need to work together for the issue to be addressed meaningfully and successfully. "UNHCR itself is ready to work with countries in the region to find solutions to the plight of these people. These ultimately may include returning people to their home countries voluntarily and once conditions allow," she told DW.
The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority from Buddhist-majority Myanmar described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Most of them are not citizens and outbreaks of sectarian violence have prompted many to flee. "An entire population feels their only option is to seek asylum by sea," Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights told DW.
The figure of Rohingya trafficked in Thailand since 2012 could be as high as a quarter million. The UN Refugee agency estimates that some 25,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis boarded people smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year.
Tackling the root causes
In the meantime, Thailand has called for a regional summit on May 29 to address the underlying causes of the crisis such as the smuggling networks, how they work across countries and how they can be stopped. But Myanmar, however, has indicated it would stay away from the meeting.
UNHCR: 'It is now urgent for people to be brought ashore without delay, and that immediate first aid and other care is provided for all who are in need'
The Rohingya situation is bound to be a major regional issue until there is a durable political settlement in Myanmar. However, it seems unlikely that it will be resolved in the near future, say experts: "This requires a regional solution, and at its heart it requires citizenship and protection of legal and civil rights in Myanmar. However, I just don't see that happening any time soon," said independent Southeast Asia analyst Zachary Abuza. Until then, he told DW, "it will be business as usual for the traffickers after public scrutiny diminishes."