At the height of the crisis in May, the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were as many as 8000 people stuck at sea | (Photo-AFP)

Amnesty international has condemned Southeast Asian governments for failing to sufficiently protect refugees and migrants, one month after a key regional summit on the crisis that saw thousands of people stuck adrift at sea in dire conditions.

In an open letter published yesterday, the rights group warned that further inaction could lead to “disaster” in the future, particularly when the sailing season resumes after the monsoon.

It remains unclear whether all the boats stranded at sea in May have made it to land since the summit, with hundreds of people still thought to be unaccounted for.

The Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean in Bangkok on May 29 brought 17 countries together to discuss the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

At the height of the crisis in May, the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were as many as 8000 people – mainly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis ¬– stuck at sea, as regional governments had refused to allow them to land.
At the summit, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take in up to 7000 of the “boat people” on a temporary basis. That figure was apparently based on estimates provided by Malaysian intelligence.

“One month after the Bangkok summit, there are few signs that governments are doing what is necessary to address the desperate plight of migrants and refugees,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director.

“There’s still inadequate coordination on search and rescue operations, and a lack of clear protection measures for people who have landed on their shores,” he added.

Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok, said yesterday that more than 4600 people had disembarked in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand in May. “Several hundred people could still be unaccounted for – perhaps still at sea, or perhaps having disembarked discreetly without us knowing,” she added.

Ms Tan said she was not aware of any new reports of boats being sighted in June. Previous media reports from Myanmar have suggested a number of Rohingya refugees, who are not considered citizens by the Myanmar government, returned quietly to shore in Rakhine State before authorities were officially involved in any rescue operations.

A clampdown by authorities in Myanmar in light of the crisis, along with the start of the monsoon, has brought the exodus of boats from Rakhine to a halt, according to local sources.

However, Amnesty warned that sailings could resume again in October once the weather improves.

“Inaction now could pave the way for disaster later. Although it might look like the worst of the immediate crisis at sea is over, it is likely to escalate again once the sailing season starts. Those facing persecutions in their home countries will continue to flee to seek asylum,” Mr Bennett said.

“It is crucial that regional governments put measures in place to ensure that more lives are not lost, and ensure there are safe and legal means for seeking asylum or migrating,” he added. (