LAST month, I had written in this newspaper ("Displaced and stateless Rohingyas fleeing hell and facing limbo, The Star, Nov 10) that Malaysia would be challenged on the congruence of its position on the Rohingyas.
I questioned if the humanitarian aid provided to Rohingyas fleeing their burning homes in Myanmar would be forthcoming to the same people if they land on our shores where there is the absence of protection for them?
That day did come. On Tuesday, a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency vessel picked up 40 Rohingya refugees from a cargo ship in Johor. The refugees were on a boat that sank in the Bay of Bengal in early December while carrying about 250 people who were fleeing the ethnic violence in Myanmar. These 40 survivors had been turned away by Singapore earlier.
Health Equity Initiatives lauds the Malaysian government on this humanitarian gesture.
The situation of the Rohingyas remains precarious. Ongoing sectarian attacks on the minority Muslim Rohingyas and aid blockade in Myanmar have been forcing them out of their homes, with several families being separated as they flee the violence.
Currently, thousands, including women and children, are stranded at sea with no safe place to hide. Many are believed to be missing. Eyewitness accounts of fishermen in the Bay of Bengal describe dead bodies being dropped from boats carrying the Rohingyas, and children on these boats looking tired and exhausted.
Malaysia's gesture in offering refuge to the 40 survivors of the ship-wreck, fleeing such violent persecution, is the required empathetic humanitarian response from civilised nations.
Thousands of refugees like the Rohingyas in this case, have drowned at sea because of the absence of legitimate mechanisms for them to apply for international protection.
Malaysia's humanitarian gesture is a step in the right direction that should be emulated by other countries. It is also smart strategy to prevent human trafficking. It thwarts the efforts of international smugglers and human traffickers who exploit the vulnerability of those in dire need of international protection, and who have no option but to undertake these perilous journeys that often cost them their lives, in order to live a life, free from oppression and persecution.
For a sustainable solution to this problem, Malaysia needs to build on this gesture of humanitarian leadership by developing a coherent protection framework for refugees and asylum seekers at home, engaging Myanmar's fledgling democracy more robustly on the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities which is contributing to the widespread displacement of people in the region, initiating a regional burden sharing mechanism, and promoting efforts of peace building in the region.
SHARUNA VERGHIS Health Equity Initiatives Kuala Lumpur