Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lashed out Sunday at Bangladeshis trying to flee poverty by making perilous journeys on overcrowded boats in a bid to improve their chances of finding better lives elsewhere. The prime minister said the migrants are “mentally sick” and are “tainting” the image of their country.
"There is sufficient work for them, still they are leaving the country in such disastrous ways," the prime minister said in a statement published by the local state-run news agency, Agence France-Presse reported. It was the first time Hasina has addressed the issue.
Hasina said the migrants need to be punished along with the human trafficking “brokers” who arrange the journeys. Traffickers lure migrants with promises of safe passage to places like Australia, but migrants often wind up stranded and drifting at sea.
A recent uptick in emigration from Bangladesh and neighboring Myanmar has created a refugee crisis, with thousands of people either drifting on the waters of the Bay of Bengal, or being rescued and crammed into ramshackle refugee camps in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia Saturday joined Malaysia in searching for migrants lost at sea where it’s believed at least 7,000 people are adrift in boats.
About 3,500 others are scattered in refugee camps while arrangements are made to send them home. The migrants are members of the Muslim Rohingya population from Myanmar and Bangladeshis. Both are fleeing poverty and seeking better lives.
Rohingya are a persecuted minority in Myanmar where a “birth spacing” limit believed targeted at the Muslim population recently was imposed. Muslims are poorer and tend to have more children. “We shared the concerns that these bills can exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Saturday, according to the Wall Street Journal. Human rights groups say a two-child limit already has been imposed in northern Rakhine state where the Rohingya outnumber Buddhists.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Saturday Indonesia has informed her most of the boat people are Bangladeshis, not Rohingya fleeing persecution.
"They [Indonesia] believe there are about 7,000 people at sea. They think about 30-40 percent are Rohingya, the rest are Bangladeshi,” she said, according to AFP. “And they are not, in Indonesia's words, asylum seekers. They are not refugees. They are illegal laborers.”
Australia is a common destination for illegal migrants from as far away as Iraq. Much like what happens in the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, thousands of migrants attempt each year to cross the waters between Indonesia and Australia to enter the country illegally to work.