Human Conscience and Boat People

The repeated occurrence of poor people trying to escape from their respective countries in Asia using rickety boats in high seas to reach the shores of relatively well-developed countries in the region has become a daily phenomenon. In fact, as I write this post, there are at least two such boats crammed with people in South China Sea, floating somewhere near Indonesia or Malaysia.

The “boat people” issue became major news over the past couple of years when Australia refused to accept them and forcibly evicted these people to distant islands under an “economic arrangement”, wherein it would pay those governments for hosting these people under prison-like compounds. That defeats the entire purpose of the boat people, who are looking for jobs and dignity in their lives. They do not wish to live in a concentration camp, fed by prison wardens, living under demeaning conditions. This is what exactly Australia has accomplished, and I understand it is negotiating with Cambodia to house migrants.

Such inhuman treatment of boat migrants is against international laws, but Australia has ignored complaints and appeals from the UN Human Rights Commission. It has continued to operate in an illegal manner, turning away boats on the high seas.

I was afraid that Indonesia and Malaysia would do the same to the Rohingyas, the ethnic minority Muslims, who are currently on the boats in South China Sea. Malaysia initially resisted accepting the migrants, and turned away the boats. Thailand did not accept either. Probably Indonesia was debating on the matter.

However, wiser counsel is prevailing and the South East Asian countries have recently held a dialogue on resolving the issue. There is recognition of the fact that people at sea have to be saved first and brought onshore. That should always be the first priority in any case – how can responsible governments turn away human beings to the high seas ? How will these people survive ?

Hard choices have to be tackled with soft hands as peoples’ lives are involved. Human trafficking is a major problem – there are unscrupulous boat operators who charge money from these poor people which is inhuman exploitation and they are then put to the sea without food or water. Such trafficking obviously happens with the connivance of government officials, and this needs to be stopped forthwith.

While the boat people problem is not going to go away, it is heartening to see the involvement of the U.N. and the U.S. It is also good to see the drive towards discussions and resolution amongst the ASEAN countries and Bangladesh which remains as a major source of migrants at sea. This is contrary to what we have seen in Australia. While Australia has accepted migrants for many decades, it has taken a rather tough stand in the recent past due to conservative government push. This is not in any way enhancing the image or reputation of Australia amongst people who care for such humanitarian issues around the world.

At the end of the day, we cannot let people die at the mercy of human traffickers, insensitive government officials, or foolish government decisions. The responsibility lies with the government which controls the economic corridors of the seas which surround it. It can persuade other governments to accept the migrants but it has no option of turning away the boats back into the high seas.

That is simply inhuman. And, such behaviour is unacceptable and seriously bereft of human conscience.

May be the U.N. should assume some direct responsibility and address the root causes of such unsafe boat migration in the seas.

Let us think carefully on this rather serious humanitarian problem. Just imagine these folks right now in the high seas near where we live – the South China Sea. Are we peacefully able to eat our dinner while thinking of these poor people who may not have water or food at this very moment ?

Talk to your conscience.


Vijay Srinivasan

31st May 2015


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