NOSCO Victory. Photo via NOSCO.

NOSCO Victory. Photo via NOSCO.

Chun Han Wong

SINGAPORE–A group of shipwreck survivors rescued near Myanmar last week remains in limbo off Singapore’s coast despite concerns they could be refugees, in a sign of wariness by Southeast Asian governments about accepting asylum seekers amid an increased exodus from Myanmar.

The 40 survivors are aboard a Vietnamese cargo ship that picked them up when their vessel, the Nagu, 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 over the past year that has left tens of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya people homeless and accelerated migration.

It isn’t clear if the survivors are Rohingya, whose plight has brought pressure on Myanmar’s government. The Vietnamese ship’s owner–the Northern Shipping Joint Stock Co., or Nosco–says the survivors claim to be from Myanmar but didn’t carry identification papers. Singapore has barred the NOSCO Victory from entering its harbor, while neighboring Indonesia hints at reluctance to accept the shipwrecked people.

This incident also 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 next to Rakhine state. Some recent attempts have ended in tragedy, including an October sinking that reportedly drowned about 130 Rohingya.

The NOSCO Victory was due to dock Sunday in Singapore. But the island state’s Maritime and Port Authority said Wednesday it had denied the ship entry because the rescued “do not appear to be persons eligible to enter Singapore” and alleged the captain ignored advice from Indian authorities to take the survivors to the “nearest port of safety.” The authority didn’t respond to a query on the survivors’ ethnicity.

NOSCO has sought help from Singapore’s foreign ministry and at the Myanmar Embassy in Vietnam, but company officials say they are growing impatient over the lack of a solution amid rising concerns over health and safety risks onboard the ship.

“The ship is designed to accommodate only 24 sailors, so with 40 more people onboard, we are very concerned about the safety issues and the food supplies. Some [of the survivors] even don’t have enough clothing,” NOSCO Deputy General Director Nguyen Cong Thanh told the Wall Street Journal.

Singapore isn’t a signatory to the United Nations 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. 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.

The ship is due to arrive in Indonesia on Saturday, but Jakarta appears cool to welcoming them.

“I hope our neighbors will do their obligation to protect and serve those who are under such conditions required by the [U.N.] Convention on Refugees,” Indonesian Minister of Law and Human Rights Amir Syamsuddin said in response to questions from the Journal. “We are not proactively inviting the refugees to come to Indonesia, but if they are already in the country, we will process their requests.”

The incident has prompted concern from the U.N. refugee agency, which plans to offer assistance to the survivors as soon as they disembark and to eventually start access to asylum proceedings if they qualify.

“While we can’t confirm the identity of those rescued, we have reason to believe there could be people in need of international protection among them,” said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

A Myanmar foreign ministry official said the government wasn’t informed of the Bangladeshi-flagged Nagu’s sinking or of the rescue of its passengers.

The Indian coast guard said the Nagu was carrying about 250 people when it sank en route from Myanmar to Malaysia. Apart from the 40 rescued by the NOSCO Victory, another nine survivors were picked up by the X Press Hoogly, a Liberian-flagged vessel that most recently reported its location in the Malacca Strait, according to the Marine Traffic website.

Singapore has maintained long-standing economic ties with Myanmar–bilateral trade between the countries doubled to $2.4 billion from 2007 to 2011, Singapore’s trade and export promotion agency says.

Myanmar’s former military regime last year handed power to a quasicivilian government that has embarked on a series of changes. But analysts say unleashed rivalries between myriad ethnicities that had been suppressed by the military now present a challenge to its fledgling democracy.

Around 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 that ethnic violence in Rakhine has so far displaced about 115,000 people, most of them Rohingya. Many have fled Myanmar since the 1970s. About 230,000 Rohingya reside in Bangladesh, another 24,000 in Malaysia and 3,700 in India, the agency says.

–Vu Trong Khanh in Hanoi, Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur and I Made Sentana in Jakarta contributed to this article.

(c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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