IT is not without a great measure of relief, as well as a little pride, with which we greeted the news yesterday that Malaysia and Indonesia decided to follow the lead of the Philippines and agreed to rescue and provide aid for the thousands of ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees currently adrift in the Andaman Sea.
The crisis, to recall, began building several weeks ago when the so-called “boat people” fleeing from ethnic violence and appalling living conditions in western Myanmar started to appear in Southeast Asian waters.
The Rohingya, a Muslim group who are ethnically related to both the Burmese and the Bengali, have suffered years of persecution while trying to survive in makeshift camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh accepts the Rohingya as citizens – each country claims they belong to the other – leading thousands of them to take a desperate chance aboard crowded, barely seaworthy boats to attempt to find asylum in some other country.
Until the Philippine government spoke up on Wednesday, however, that asylum – and in shameful fact, even basic humanitarian assistance – was being denied the Rohingya by every country they approached. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia in particular all earned well-deserved global condemnation for shooing the refugees’ boats away from their shores in spite of the grave condition of the people aboard. Most of the badly-overcrowded boats that have been spotted or rescued have no food or water aboard, no sanitation, and provide little shelter from the elements; several have already foundered and sunk.
So far a few thousand refugees have been rescued at sea or managed to land despite the efforts of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to keep them away. As of Wednesday, it was estimated that 7,000 more “boat people” are still at sea, their situation growing more deadly with each passing hour.
Yes, the Philippine gesture to welcome the refugees was almost certainly purely symbolic; the struggling vessels are presently located somewhere south of Burma and west-northwest of the Malay Peninsula, and are not capable of even reaching the Philippines. And it did take a bit of prodding to convince the Aquino Administration to step up to the country’s humanitarian obligations; earlier statements from officials clearly caught off-guard by the question suggested at first that any refugees arriving in Philippine waters would also be turned away, a stance that was later softened in an artfully cynical way with the announcement that refugees with proper immigration documents – an impossibility for stateless persons – would be welcomed.
Imperfectly done though it may have been, arriving at the decision to accept and provide proper care for the Rohingya refugees – however unlikely it is that any of them will be able to reach the Philippines – was the right thing to do. The decision honors the Philippines’ obligations under various UN human rights conventions, and it honors the Philippines’ history of helping refugees, such as the more than 1,500 Jews who fled Nazi terror at the beginning of World War II, and thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians escaping the aftermath of their countries’ fall to the Communists. And the Philippines’ decision obviously served as the good example needed to encourage at least two of our stubborn regional neighbors to soften their positions and offer their assistance to the refugees.
Accepting the Rohingya “boat people” was the right thing to do, but it was no less than what we, and for that matter, the rest of the world should expect from our government. As proper as it is to acknowledge the good decision, it is also reasonable to remind our leaders that the strength of an apparent commitment to humanitarian concerns is measured in actions, not words.