Some victims are more equal than others in the maths of nations

While the search goes on for the dead, Asia Pacific countries seem willing to leave those starving in the Andaman Sea to their fate

It's the politics of the perverse and a tangled kind of compassion; an example of priorities utterly back to front when we are making the bizarre choice to search for the dead while the living are in such terrible need.

Just over 14 months ago Flight MH370 disappeared having taken off from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, bound for Beijing, China. Less than an hour after take off final voice contact was made with air traffic control and a few minutes later the plane disappeared from radar. Despite a massive international search, nothing has been found.

At this stage – wherever the plane went down – there is no chance of finding survivors, no possible heroic rescue. As important as it must be for the families that the world does not give up its search (and wouldn't anyone of us want to learn what happened to our loved ones if they were on that flight?), there is undoubtedly no-one left to save.

Yet Australia and Malaysia have already spent over $60 million between them in the search for the missing 239 passengers and crew, and in last week's budget, Australia allocated another $50 million.

At the same time, in the same part of the world's oceans – in this case the Andaman Sea, where the search for MH370 began – there are many more passengers in desperate need. Countries around South-East Asia aren't rushing to save them however. Near-by countries aren't budgeting tens of millions to come to their rescue. Quite the reverse, some are pushing them back into the ocean, possibly to their deaths.

These are migrants stranded in the Andaman Sea, trying to get from Bangladesh or Burma to Malaysia or Indonesia, possibly even Thailand at this point, given they have often been cut adrift and abandoned by the agents and crew – otherwise known as smugglers – who they paid for their passage.

On Friday 1,000 came ashore in Thailand and Indonesia, but the main media reports have been about those who aren't so lucky. Two other boats were turned away.

Passengers on one boat rejected by the Thais say ten of their shipmates have died and they are starving. Thousands more are at sea, but because the numbers are so large, no-one wants to find or rescue these people. It's what Human Rights Watch has called a game of "marine ping pong".


The Wall St Journal reports:

"Lured by the promise of sanctuary and well-paid jobs in Malaysia, an estimated 50,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar attempt the perilous voyage across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea every year."

But the numbers are growing. The United Nations talk of around 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims having embarked on voyages in just the first quarter of the year, with around 300 dying already. That's almost as many as on MH 370.

When you consider the numbers involved, you can understand why developing countries are reluctant to give safe harbour to these desperate folk. You could have a new Napier turning up in your country every year. Who can afford that?

Malaysia this past week said it would push the boatloads of migrants back out to sea to send "the right message".

Of course those on MH370 didn't choose to risk their lives or break international laws, as these boat people did. But both are victims. Those boarding the boats at such a high risk only do so because the lives they are trying to escape are so desperate.

As Amnesty International says, it's an affront to humanity to leave these people to their fates, dying a hideous death at sea. And how bizarre is it to think of Malaysia spending tens of millions looking for the dead, when they won't do a thing to save the living. 

The world was so willing to search for a missing plane, even if it was merely to find the dead. Where is the same determination to search for the living on these desperate voyages, when there are still so many lives to be saved?