It's not an easy decision to leave one's home country. But abject poverty, hopelessness and discrimination are driving people to put their lives at risk in order to secure a better life for themselves and their children.
The plight of the Rohingya has long been known. The exodus of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh took a sharp upturn as early as 2006. Bloody riots between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar have forced even more Rohingya to flee violence and political persecution.
This is no local crisis but rather a regional one involving several countries. The Rohingya are leaving their home countries and embarking on a journey through Thailand to reach countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. However, a common policy on how to deal with the refugees has so far proved elusive.
Malaysia, which in recent years has mediated between Myanmar's government and Rohingya groups, has been unable to produce any breakthroughs as Naypyidaw has repeatedly blocked any such attempts.
At the same time, Thailand's actions have worsened the problem, instead of solving it. Given that it is seen as a transit country by most refugees on their way to Malaysia or Indonesia, Thailand had for years allowed human traffickers to smuggle Rohingya to Malaysia, and some corrupt Thai officials even benefited from this practice.
Indonesia, on the other hand, is worried about an increase in the number of refugees stranded along its shores. Along with Malaysia and Thailand, Jakarta has categorically ruled out allowing refugees on overcrowded boats to disembark on its territory unless they are sinking. Although the migrants have been reportedly offered food and other supplies, a number of boats have been towed back into the open seas.
The Thai government has called for a regional crisis meeting on the issue set to be held in Bangkok on May 29. For once, these governments need to look beyond their own interests and find common ground.
To this end, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) only needs to remind itself of Article 16 of its own human rights declaration: "Every person has the right to seek and receive asylum in another State in accordance with the laws of such State and applicable international agreements." It's also about time that all the states in the region become signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees - a step only taken so far by Australia, the Philippines, Cambodia and East Timor.
But merely signing the documents won't be enough. What is needed is immediate action. The crisis summit in Bangkok will be too little too late for those stranded at sea. 8,000 people will not overwhelm any country, let alone a whole region. First, these people must be helped. A common refugee policy can be drafted subsequently.
The so-called Comprehensive Plan of Action, designed to deter and to stop the influx of Indochinese boat people in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is proof that such a course of action is possible. With the help of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), key destination countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines agreed back then not to turn away these refugees. This shows that helping people in such situations is possible. It only requires a common policy where the burden is shared among many.
We in Europe are aware of just how difficult this is. Those who recently drowned in the Mediterranean serve as a gruesome reminder of a failed EU policy in which states simply seem to shift responsibility amongst each other. But we all know, both in Europe and Southeast Asia, what should be done: We should commit ourselves to helping those in need.
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