Representatives of 17 nations are scheduled to gather in Bangkok on Friday for an unprecedented one-day meeting on irregular migration, but U.N. officials say front-line states need to deal with problem urgently rather than merely talk about it.
The countries most affected by the current migrant crisis need to go after human trafficking rings, and they must make it a top priority to rescue and deliver humanitarian aid to thousands of people still stranded at sea, according to U.N. officials based in Bangkok.
“Nobody knows where this is going to end at this point ... but the criminal element really needs to be taken seriously," Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told RFA.
“Protection of human life is paramount” in the burgeoning crisis around illegal migration, he said.
"There's definitely a challenge when this isn't prioritized by institutions like police organizations, or it's not given attention, or, potentially, police organizations are infiltrated by criminals,” Douglas said.
"We need to get all of the law enforcement working on the same page, connected and countering these groups, because it's quite serious that they're [human trafficking syndicates] able to operate for so long, carrying so many thousands of people from country to country to country. That's a pretty serious criminal enterprise that can do that," he added.
Comprehensive approach needed
Cracking down on people-smuggling rings is just one piece of a complex problem that requires coordinated international action, said Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the regional office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"This is clearly a regional problem that needs regional solutions. It's good that countries in the region are now coming together to talk about this common challenge, so that's a good start,” Tan told RFA.
“But it really needs to be a comprehensive approach. It cannot be just about law enforcement or just cracking down on smuggling rings, because that alone will not work."
Countries in the region must make it a priority to save people still stranded at sea and to rush food, medicine and other necessities to them, she said.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an estimated 4,000 illegal migrants were still at sea as of Monday, and some 3,200 people had landed in Malaysia and Indonesia since May 4.
The problem cannot be solved unless these countries "also address the root causes, because unless you give people better conditions in Myanmar and Bangladesh, they will continue to leave and risk their lives on smugglers' boats," Tan added.
Myanmar is widely seen as a source of the problem, because it does not recognize Muslim Rohingya, who come mostly from western Rakhine state, as citizens.
"Malaysia will seek assurances from Myanmar’s government in tackling the crisis, while also stressing the importance to identify and solve the main cause of the problem,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said, outlining his government’s agenda for the Bangkok meeting.
"We will also ask Myanmar to continue its support and implement programs for economic and social development in the region, '' he told RFA.
Friday’s meeting will mark the first time that nations from across the region come together to talk about human trafficking and illegal migration.
Dubbed the “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean”, the event will bring together 17 countries, according to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Delegations from the United States and Switzerland will attend the meeting as observers, and UNHCR, UNODC and IOM also will participate.
“The Special Meeting is an urgent call for the region to comprehensively work together to address the unprecedented increase of irregular migration across the Bay of Bengal in recent years,” the ministry said in a news release.
Thailand announced the meeting on May 12, amid a governmental crackdown on human trafficking that caused boatloads of illegal migrants to seek landing points farther south.
Eight days later, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments announced that they were dropping their policy of pushing back boats, and would grant migrants temporary shelter for up to a year. But Thailand has not agreed to take in more migrants.
Both Malaysia and Thailand have discovered smuggling camps and migrant graves in the heavily forested mountains along their border.
Thailand has arrested local officials on suspicion of human trafficking, including a mayor and deputy mayor in Songkhla province.
On Wednesday, Malaysia announced the arrests of a dozen police officers suspected of links to trafficking rings, but they have yet to determine whether the suspects were connected to the 28 camps and 139 graves found in northern Perlis state.
“Four have been arrested by police for suspected involvement with trafficking syndicates and another eight have been arrested by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission recently,” Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said.
Residents in the remote area where the camps were found were not surprised, although Malaysian officials claimed to be.
"I have lived here for 30 years and I have seen many Rohingya, and they are always in bad shape," Perlis resident Sani Hashim, 80, told Agence France-Presse.
Emaciated migrants would approach his small farm begging for food, water and clothing, he said.
"We do what we can. And if they are not able to stand or walk, we call the authorities who take them away," AFP quoted him as saying.
Reported by RFA.