Sam Klintworth is the Director of Amnesty International Australia. Usman Hamid is the Director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
In early June, there was a happy exception to a tragic rule. A boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya migrants approached Malaysia's shores. Unusually, it was not turned away. "Deportation was not conducted," the authorities explained, "as the boat was damaged." They added that a woman's dead body was found on board, and that 269 people were placed in detention.
Hundreds of Rohingya people died at sea in 2015 and now hundreds more are believed to be adrift on cramped fishing boats between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, trying and failing to find a welcoming shore and a safe country. Their ordeal, starved of food and water, has lasted months and shows no sign of ending. Despite acknowledging that most of the people it rescued last week could barely walk, Malaysia has since pushed another boat back.
Today, World Refugee Day, we see with particular sharpness how the treatment of these women, men and children is an abject failure. Again and again, governments invoke COVID-19 as a reason for aggressively warding off the boats from their coasts back into desolate open waters. In doing so, they are claiming that a life-threatening pandemic justifies leaving hundreds more to die.
Rohingya people have been escaping violence and persecution from their homes in Myanmar for years, as well as from the hardships of refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. In recent weeks, the boats have tried to reach Malaysia and were also spotted off the coasts of Thailand.
In previous years, thousands more Rohingya people attempted similar journeys, some traveling even further to Indonesia, India and Australia. Then came the 2015 tragedy, after which regional leaders pledged to "learn from past crises" and not repeat the same catastrophic mistakes.
Today regional governments are handling the emergency in different ways, but all of them are inhumane.
After rescuing a vessel in early April, Malaysia boasted about its military efforts to push more boats away. Indonesia has paraded its border patrol ships and helicopters, threatening the same cruel pushback to any boat that enters their waters. Both cited COVID-19, among other concerns, to justify their actions. Australia and Thailand are staying largely silent.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, already hosts nearly 1 million Rohingya people in its refugee camps along the Myanmar border. The Bangladesh government has done the most in recent weeks to rescue returning survivors -- but it has indicated that any further arrivals may be towed to Bhasan Char, a remote silt island, which the U.N. has yet to deem habitable. Any experiment which involves keeping refugees on the island away from families -- as well as humanitarian and protection services -- could amount to arbitrary detention.
Repeated urgent calls for search and rescue operations, most recently from former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are going unheeded.
Nothing is known about conditions on the boats. Relatives are without news: cellphones are out of reach and long out of battery. All that we know comes from the testimonies of those who recently survived such journeys, and what they tell us is this: for many, the rescue came too late.
One woman said she witnessed more than 50 people die on a ship of nearly 400 people she was stranded on for months. Traffickers, she says, ran both engines to try to conceal the sound of splashing water when bodies were thrown into the sea.
As the world envisions a "new normal" after COVID-19, a crucial test will be how to better protect the most marginalized in our societies. The treatment of the Rohingya is one such test. But right now, the pandemic response is putting many of them in greater danger -- and not just those stranded at sea.
Policies on immigration detention which have targeted Rohingya continue to endanger their health and lives in overcrowded detention centers in Malaysia and Thailand, where they face an acute risk of contracting COVID-19. Those in Bangladesh's refugee camps are also singularly at risk of infection.
Meanwhile, Myanmar continues to deny the Rohingya people justice for crimes against humanity its military has committed against them and continues to impose apartheid conditions on the Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. Many of them are denied access to health care, all while the pandemic rages.
The persistent suffering of the Rohingya is not an issue that can be resolved overnight, but it is one the region can address humanely together.
Regional governments can begin by triggering an urgently awaited dialogue under the Bali Process, co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia, and agree ways to save those stranded at sea, as well as those who attempt these dangerous boat journeys in future.
Like COVID-19, the issue of Rohingya people seeking safety requires effective and decisive regional cooperation. It does not make sense to tackle one crisis at the other's expense. And like COVID-19, there is nothing to gain by ignoring the calls for help, or wishing the problem away: it will only put more lives at risk.
Perhaps even the sliver of good news at the start of this piece might turn out to be an illusion: in the past couple of days there was a news report that the Malaysian government is considering floating that boat back out to sea.