Asian Church leaders call for boat people to be given refuge

Church leaders in Southeast Asia have called on governments to help modern boat people, following the discovery of 139 mass graves in Malaysia and the rescue of 3,000 people in the Andaman Sea and off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The discoveries, which took place at 28 locations between May 11 and May 23, seem to point to an extensive system of jungle camps and graves along the border of Malaysia and Thailand, which has long been an important route for human traffickers bringing people from Bangladesh and Myanmar, many of the latter being Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution. 

They follow repeated Malaysian denials that such sites exist. The biggest camp so far discovered, according to Malaysia’s inspector general of police Khalid Abu Bakar, could have housed 300 people, raising fears that a large number of bodies could be found. 

Thailand’s crackdown on human trafficking after the discovery of a mass grave with dozens of Rohingya bodies has compounded the refugee crisis, as has the reluctance of the Indonesian and Malaysia governments to allow refugees entry.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, the president of the ‎Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, described as deplorable the attitude of those countries that have refused asylum to refugees, lamenting how patrol vessels tow ships full of hungry, sick and desperate people away from national waters, leaving them to perish at sea.

He praised the Filipino government, however, for its decision to welcome 3,000 boat people, saying, “God ‎gives us this chance once more to bind the wounds of body and spirit”, and adding, “There is a legal obligation not to forcibly repatriate them. And by all precepts of morality ‎and decency, there is an obligation not to leave them to the mercilessness of the elements on the high ‎seas.”  ‎

Myanmar’s first ever cardinal, Yangon’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, has lamented how “an agony of immense poignancy” was unfolding, and called on mercy and compassion to “flow like a river in the land of Buddha”. Recalling how Buddhism upholds compassion as “the noblest virtue”, he insisted that “Myanmar citizens have a moral obligation to protect and promote the dignity of all human persons”.