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Boat people too have rights

May 28, 2015

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TOMORROW’S regional meeting in Thailand must find some humane answers to the plight of thousands of homeless people floating on the sea, if the international community does not wish to be arraigned for its callous disregard for the sanctity of human life.

Few issues expose the hollowness of the global rhetoric about human rights to a greater extent than the lack of understanding shown for homeless/stateless refugees and poor men and women seeking escape from persecution, hunger, and a life without hope.

The discovery of mass graves in Malaysia and Thailand at sites of camps operated by gangs of traffickers has added an utterly grisly chapter to the migrants’ tale of unimaginable suffering. Evidence already available suggests that some of the migrants were tortured and killed by their handlers.


The discovery of mass graves in Malaysia and Thailand has accentuated the migrants’ tale of suffering.


These camps are said to have been set up for Bangladeshis and Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. While the Bangladeshi migrants were perhaps looking for better economic opportunities in Malaysia the Rohingyas have long been victims of the Myanmar government’s discriminatory policies and of deadly violence by both state and non-state actors.

However, shock and revulsion at the discovery of the remains of hundreds of luckless migrants should not divert anyone’s attention from the ordeal of the thousands of refugees/migrants/asylum-seekers who are still exposed to the elements in the ocean. According to an estimate issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Friday last about 3,500 migrants were still stranded in overloaded vessels and short of supplies.

The UN organisation’s appeal for humanitarian action by the states of the region and the shame they might have felt at media reports of the refugees’ suffering have had some effect. Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to allow those at sea to come ashore temporarily and naval forces have been ordered to rescue any people found adrift. Thailand is said to have deployed a ship carrying medical teams and police to help the needy.

The problem created by the boat people’s efforts to seek safety away from their lands is not new but it has grown many times over as a result of conflicts and persecution of vulnerable communities across a large part of the globe. The response of almost all governments is to tighten measures to ensure that these migrants cannot enter their territories. By and large, the boat people are seen as illegal migrants or willing victims of trafficking and therefore entitled to neither respect nor mercy.

The tendency to look at the misery of the boat people from a whip-carrying policeman’s narrow perspective was criticised last month by the International Federation for Human Rights and the European Association for the Defence of Human Rights in an open letter to the European Council and their argument merits serious attention.

Taking note of over 1,200 deaths in the Mediterranean within a week, the two organisations called upon the European Union and its member states to take urgent measures to prevent further loss of life.

They stated: “The majority of those embarking on the perilous journey across the sea from Libya to Italy are refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan, fleeing conflict and persecution, who have the right to seek and obtain asylum, under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, and Article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. They must be able to claim their rights without risking their lives.”

It may not be possible to invoke the guarantees mentioned above in the case of all the refugees/migrants from the Asian countries trying to enter Malaysia or Australia but whatever their guilt they cannot be denied help to escape from their predicament.

Many of them are victims of exploitation by trafficking mafias and many others, like the Rohingyas, are forced to flee their traditional habitat. If nothing else the members of Saarc and Asean can develop protocols and mechanisms for the recovery of citizens of their member states from the jaws of death on the high seas and rehabilitation in their native lands, provided they are not punished for dreaming of escape from misery and oppression. This will reduce the number of migrants who deserve to be relocated in foster societies to a small and perhaps manageable number.

The matter is not as remote from Pakistan’s area of concern as it might at first sight seem. Pakistani citizens constitute a sizeable proportion of the people who try to migrate illegally to various parts of the world. According to one UN estimate no less than 400,000 Pakistanis were deported over just seven years. Pakistanis have been identified among the boat people drowning off the Italian and Greek coasts. The 300 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya last month also included some Pakistanis. And one hopes the painful deaths of the Hazaras during their journey from Thailand/Indonesia to Australia have not been forgotten.

Unfortunately, the government has a strong tendency to write off all its poor citizens who do not follow the legal route to go abroad. Such people may face any hardship and they may perish — the state has no concern with the way they live or die. This indifference to the plight of Pakistanis in conflict with the law abroad may have its roots in the government’s indifference to the suffering of Pakistanis at home but this offers no solution to the humanitarian aspect of the matter.

The government must realise that Pakistani violators of the law do not necessarily lose all their basic rights, especially their rights to a fair trial and to appropriate remedy and redress. It should not be too much to expect Islamabad to extend legitimate relief to Pakistanis in distress abroad, and to see that they do not suffer more than what they deserve. Also Islamabad will do well to argue for a policy of reason and compassion towards all refugees at the regional forums.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2015

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