By: Tricia Aquino, InterAksyon.com
May 27, 2015 2:43 PM
Fishermen tow a boat crammed with mostly Rohingya migrants to safety in Aceh, Indonesia. (AFP)
MANILA, Philippines — As worldwide alarm grew over images of migrant boats refused sanctuary or towed out to sea by Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines bucked the trend and said it was open to receiving some, if not all, of the refugees, mostly Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
But if it does so, it wouldn’t be the first time the country welcomed Rohingya to its shores, the United Nations said.
Two years ago, Rohingya migrants were allowed into the country to recover from their ordeal at sea in between being rescued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration “from a very, very, very dangerous situation in a country of first asylum in the region, which I will not name” and continuing on their way to resettlement elsewhere.
UNHCR Representative for the Philippines Bernard Kerblat said Wednesday that around 36 Rohingya stayed in the Philippines for five months in 2013 to recover; access food, water, and health services; and free themselves of the fear of being sold by human smugglers.
After rescuing the Rohingya, the two organizations needed a territory where the migrants could stay while their resettlement was being processed.
The Philippines offered itself as that territory.
IOM chief of mission Marco Boasso described what the Philippines offered as “transit facilities” and said it was what other Southeast countries can offer to the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants adrift in the seas of the region, estimated at 2,621 by the UNHCR and IOM but a number Kerblat stressed was a “conservative, ballpark figure.”
Transit facilities will allow the migrants a chance to recover and access many of the services they have been deprived of for a long time while the two organizations look for a way to either return them home or resettle them.
Kerblat also stressed the need for additional search and rescue resources to support those already committed by Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Turkey, and the United States.
Instead of “turning a blind eye” on the migrants and “letting them rot” or be killed because of illness and exhaustion, he advocated engaging them and asking them what their motivations, needs, vulnerabilities, and histories are.
The Rohingya migrant crisis and the human trafficking that preys on them is not new, Kerblat also stressed.
The first recorded incident of human smuggling affecting Rohingya happened in 2004.
However, the issue came to international attention only recently after mass graves containing what were thought to be the remains of Rohingya (and Bangladeshi) migrants were discovered in Thailand early this month.
That country then began busting human smuggling rings and cracking down on human trafficking, Kerblat said.
The migrants would usually “come out of the high seas” and be gathered, presumably by human smugglers, aboard big ships cruising the Bay of Bengal.
“These big vessels act as a reservoir of their cargo of slaves,” Kerblat said.
After boarding the ships, the migrants are sold to another group of human smugglers and ferried off to smaller boats. They are then taken to southern Thailand to be kept in a network of camps before being sold off again to yet another ring of human smugglers who take them across the border to Malaysia.
In Malaysia they are sold as “black labor” in the construction and plantation sectors where they work unpaid for two to three years, the wages they are supposed to receive given to the human smugglers as payment for the “miserable travel” they had to endure, Kerblat said.
There are an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 Rohingya in Malaysia, he said.
Over the past two years, Kerblat said the UNHCR has noted an additional location on the list of the “frequent flyer program” of human smugglers: “Indonesia onwards to the Australian Eldorado.”