Gambia agrees to resettle Rohingya migrants stranded at sea

by Anna K. Poole
Posted 5/20/15, 11:53 am

For Muslim Rohingyas, one of the most persecuted people groups in the world, today’s horizon has a flash of hope. Late Tuesday, Gambia’s government agreed to resettle the stateless Rohingyas fleeing state-sanctioned oppression in Myanmar. 

“As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is sacred duty to help alleviate the untold hardships and sufferings [they] are confronted with,” said Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. 

Indonesia and Malaysia also consented to harbor Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded for months on the high seas after being abandoned by maritime smugglers. In a major diplomatic breakthrough, the governments also appealed for international help, saying this was a global crisis rather than a regional one. 

Thailand’s government pledged to provide humanitarian aid but has not committed to accept the migrants within its borders. The nearest countries that could help fear getting entangled in issues of refugee legal standing and dependence on government support.

During the past two weeks, thousands of Rohingya Muslim and Bangladeshi captives, abandoned at sea after a regional crackdown on human trafficking, have washed up on the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia. The United Nations refugee agency believes 4,000 more remain at sea.

Until now, boats have been tossed back and forth between regional ports, with no nation willing to allow the desperate migrants to come ashore. On Monday, Reuters reported a refugee boat with more than 300 occupants had gone missing after being pushed back to sea in a potentially deadly game the International Organization for Migration (IOM) described as “maritime ping-pong.” The escalating humanitarian crisis attracted global attention as Southeast Asian leaders sat idly by, quibbling over responsibility. The UN warned pushing away boatloads of starving people could create a crisis of “floating coffins.”

Now that an agreement is in place, the marooned migrants must be rescued and given medical attention without delay, the UN refugee agency said.

IOM welcomed the decision by Malaysia and Indonesia to accept the migrants. But the countries still have no agreement on search and rescue, according to agency spokesman Joe Lowry. 

“There’s a huge body of water and only a small number of boats, and the more time goes on without good search and rescue, the more desperate their conditions are going to become,” Lowry said, adding the migrants could be suffering from severe malnutrition, dehydration, and diseases like beri-beri.

In the last three years, attacks on the Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have left hundreds dead and sparked an exodus of an estimated 120,000 people. Many boarded human traffickers’ boats to flee to other countries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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