An armed police officer guards as Muslim refugees stand behind him at a refugee camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, western Burma (Photo – AP)
Chun Han Wong & Celine Fernandez
The Wall Street Journal
December 14, 2012
Malaysia is considering taking in 40 shipwreck survivors believed to be refugees from Myanmar, who have been in limbo this week after the Singapore government denied them entry.
Malaysia’s deliberations over the men saved by a Vietnamese cargo ship come as Singapore authorities declined to admit nine other survivors from the shipwreck who were picked up by a Liberia-flagged freighter after their vessel sank in Myanmar waters.
For now, both ships and their rescued passengers remain anchored off Singapore’s coast after attempts by the Vietnamese ship’s owner—the Northern Shipping Joint Stock Co., or Nosco—to seek assistance were turned down by Singapore authorities, highlighting the wariness among Southeast Asian governments to accept asylum seekers from a recent exodus caused by Myanmar’s ethnic violence.
Malaysia is considering accepting those aboard the Nosco Victory after requests by Nosco officials and the United Nations refugee agency, according to Vivian Tan, a Bangkok-based spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Malaysian foreign ministry on Friday confirmed that discussions were under way but didn’t provide a timeline for a decision.
“UNHCR has been in touch with Malaysian authorities and are advocating for them to take these people. UNHCR is ready to help when they disembark” with humanitarian assistance and potentially starting asylum proceedings for those who qualify, Ms. Tan said.
Neither Singapore nor Malaysia are signatories to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, which establishes a basic framework for protecting people escaping persecution. The convention bars signatories from expelling recognized refugees—with some exceptions—or punishing refugees for illegal entry.
The 49 survivors had been aboard the ill-fated Nagu, which was carrying about 250 people when it sank Dec. 5 after making a port call in Myanmar’s western Rakhine province, according to the Indian coast guard. The Rakhine region has been embroiled in violence in recent months that has left tens of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya people homeless.
It isn’t clear whether the survivors are Rohingya, whose plight has put pressure on Myanmar’s government. The 40 men saved by the Nosco Victory say they are Muslims—16 to 45 years old—from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, according to a manifest seen by The Wall Street Journal and prepared by a marine insurer, which interviewed the survivors.
The identities of the other nine survivors, currently aboard the X-Press Hoogly, are unclear.
The Nosco Victory was due to dock Dec. 9 in Singapore, while the X-Press Hoogly had been scheduled for a stop Friday at the island state. But Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority said in response to queries that it denied both ships entry because the rescued “do not appear to be persons eligible to enter Singapore,” and alleged the captains of both vessels had ignored advice from Indian authorities to take the survivors to the “nearest port of safety,” without clarifying which destination.
The captains couldn’t be reached to comment. The Authority didn’t respond to a query on the survivors’ ethnicity.
Nosco executives say they had sought help from the Vietnamese foreign ministry and the Singapore and Myanmar embassies in Hanoi, but grew impatient over the lack of a solution as health and safety risks grew onboard their ship, because of overcrowding and a potential shortage of food supplies.
An official at X-Press Feeder, the shipping firm that chartered the X-Press Hoogly, declined to comment on whether the company was negotiating with Singapore authorities.
The Nosco Victory was originally scheduled to arrive in Indonesia on Dec. 15, although Indonesian officials have indicated reluctance to accept the shipwrecked people, saying they won’t actively encourage refugees to come but would process those who have already arrived. An X-Press Feeder official said it isn’t clear if the X-Press Hoogly can reach Kolkata on Dec. 20 as initially planned.
The incident comes as civil-society groups warn that growing numbers of Rohingya refugees are fleeing Rakhine by boat to nearby countries, prompted by Bangladesh’s continued closure of its border with Rakhine state. Some recent attempts have ended in tragedy, including an October sinking in which about 130 Rohingya were reportedly killed.
Singapore has in the past said it can’t accept refugees and asylum seekers due to its small size and limited resources, although it would help such people find other asylum destinations.
Malaysia, meanwhile, has become reluctant hosts to some 24,000 Rohingya, who form one of the largest refugee groups in the Muslim-majority country, where asylum seekers are vulnerable to arrests for immigration offenses, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Myanmar’s former military regime last year handed power to a quasi-civilian government that has embarked on a series of reforms. But analysts say rivalries between various ethnicities that had been suppressed by the military now present a challenge to its fledgling democracy.
About 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in Myanmar. They make up just 1.25% of Myanmar’s 64 million population, but a much larger proportion in Rakhine state, about a quarter. The majority in the state are Buddhist Rakhines.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates the latest spate of ethnic violence in Rakhine has so far displaced about 115,000 people, most of them Rohingya.
—Vu Trong Khanh in Hanoi contributed to this article.