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The Solution to Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis That Is No Solution At All

While Malaysia and Indonesia’s offer may save the lives of the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who have been starving on over-crowded boats as monsoon season ramps up, it does nothing to resolve the broader issues behind the crisis.

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After weeks stranded on Southeast Asian seas, bouncing between countries all refusing to let them land, some 7,000 Muslim migrants have finally found relief — at least for now. On Wednesday, in the face of growing outcry from the United Nations and other observers, Indonesia and Malaysia announced that they would allow the migrants’ boats dock on their shores and offer them temporary shelter.

The announcement came after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, all of which border the Andaman Sea where the migrants are adrift, and all of which previously had refused to let most of them land.

While Malaysia and Indonesia’s offer may save the lives of the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who have been starving on over-crowded boats as monsoon season ramps up, it does nothing to resolve the broader issues behind the crisis. Both Indonesia and Malaysia were quick to stress that they’re only offering temporary relief and shelter, and expect the international community to step in and help find more permanent settlement for the migrants.

The deal won’t improve the dire conditions in Myanmar and Bangladesh pushing migrants to leave. On Wednesday, the Myanmar government said it was making “serious efforts” to stop illegal migration, including sea patrols around its coast. But the problem starts long before migrants make the decision to leave, with a stifling lack of economic opportunity, Buddhist mobs’ ongoing attacks against the Rohingya minority, and Myanmar government’s denial of citizenship and other rights for the Muslim group.

The United Nations estimates that some 100,000 Rohingya have undertaken dangerous sea voyages in recent years to flee persecution, and some say the campaign against them in Myanmar amounts to genocide.

Neighboring countries have been hesitant to admit the Rohingya, despite perilous conditions on the boats, partly because they worry that this would just increase the flood of migrants. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia are emphasizing that their offer won’t extend to anyone coming on boats in the future.

The choice to take in the currently stranded migrants puts their approach somewhere between that of the European Union, which has stepped up search and rescue efforts and says it will launch military operations against traffickers after the recent spate of Mediterranean shipwrecks, and Australia’s, which since September 2013 has prevented any migrant boats from reaching its mainland in favor of holding them in dismal offshore detention facilities. Australia’s government has touted its success at “stopping the boats” — and downplayed the fact that the strategy has left migrants in permanent offshore limbo, or driven them back to Southeast Asia, adding to the current crisis there.

Thailand, for its part, said Wednesday that it will clarify whether it, too, will take in migrants at a regional meeting in Bangkok next week.

“We maintain our stance that we are a transit country,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said after Malaysia and Indonesia’s announcement. “Our country has more problems than theirs.” After uncovering several mass graves of trafficked Rohingyas, Thailand recently has cracked down on migrant smuggling, blocking overland routes and pushing smugglers’ boats back out to sea.

It’s not clear if the meeting in Bangkok will bring any long-term solutions. The regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is famous for its focus on “consensus building” — which often isn’t the best way to get countries to make tough choices.

Some others already have stepped up to help — compassionate Indonesian fishermen, the Turkish navy, international organizations like the International Organization for Migration, and the Philippine government. But while godsends for the individual migrants they manage to pull out of the seas, these moves are far from ending the larger crisis.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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