Over 20,000 People Risked Their Lives in Indian Ocean Sea Crossings in Half a Year — Many Are Muslims Fleeing Terror in Myanmar

Human Wrongs Watch

Over 20,000 people risked their lives in sea crossings in the Indian Ocean in the first half of this year, many of them Rohingya who fled Myanmar, according to a new report released on 22 August 2014 by the United Nations refugee agency.

Feature photo shows fishermen as they manoeuvre a boat in a waterway near Sittwe in Mynamar. People risking their lives to leave Myanmar and cross the Bay of Bengal board boats in locations like this. Photo: UNHCR/V. Tan

The report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on irregular maritime movements in South-east Asia also notes that several hundred people were intercepted on boats heading to Australia.*

Produced by a newly-established Maritime Movements Monitoring Unit at UNHCR’s Regional Office in Bangkok, the report focuses on departures from the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere passing through South-east Asia, and highlights the abuses people are facing on their journeys, and developments related to Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy.

It shows that more than 7,000 asylum-seekers and refugees who have travelled by sea are at present held in detention facilities in the region, including over 5,000 in Australia or its offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Human Smuggling

“Because of its clandestine nature, the full extent of people smuggling remains hard to determine,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.

“But in-depth interviews with survivors have offered insights into what goes on during the long and arduous journey from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and beyond.”

Over 50,000 in 12 Months

The report estimates that 53,000 people departed irregularly by sea from the Bay of Bengal in the 12 months ending June 2014 – a 61 per cent increase over the previous 12 months. In the two years following the June 2012 outbreak of inter-communal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, some 87,000 people – mostly Rohingya but also Bangladeshis – embarked on the dangerous journey in search of safety and stability.

The main sailing season has continued to be between October and the first quarter of the year when seas are calmer. Typically, passengers were ferried on small boats to larger fishing or cargo boats that could each hold up to 700 people. Most were men, but there were also rising numbers of women and children.

$50 to $300 to Board the Boats

According to the research, most passengers interviewed said they paid between $50 and $300 to board the boats and were at sea for an average of one to two weeks. Some waited for up to two months for their boat to take on more passengers. Many said they fell sick along the way. There are also unconfirmed reports of deaths due to illness, heat, a lack of food and water and severe beatings.

UNHCR cited “a very challenging protection environment” for refugees in the region. States, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and lack formal legal frameworks for dealing with refugees.

“Without a legal status they are often at risk of arrest, detention, and deportation under immigration laws,” said Mr. Edwards. “It also makes legal employment impossible and drives many people, including women and children, into exploitative and vulnerable situations.” (*Source: UN Release).

This is not the first time that the UN raises the voice of alarm about the grown number if people killed trying to cross the Indian ocean.


Some of those risking their lives on high sea voyages set off from waterways like this one in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR/V.Tan

Some of those risking their lives on high sea voyages set off from waterways like this one in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR/V.Tan

On 22 February 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is calling for urgent action to prevent the rising numbers of people killed trying to cross the Indian Ocean in smugglers’ boats, particularly the increasing numbers of women and children from the stateless Rohingya community.**

“It is clear that the Indian Ocean has become for people fleeing their countries one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world,” the agency’s spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, told journalists in Geneva.

The agency estimates that out of the 13,000 people who left on smugglers’ boats in 2012, close to 500 died at sea when their boats broke down or capsized in the Bay of Bengal.

“Already in 2013, several thousand people are believed to have boarded smugglers boats in the Bay of Bengal,” Mahecic added.

The Drama of the Muslims

Of particular concern is the Rohingya community from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state which is not recognized by the Government and remain stateless. Fighting between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state erupted last June, uprooting 115,000 people – the majority of them Rohingya – and sending them to live in internally displaced camps in Myanmar or to refugee and makeshift camps in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries.

While men have usually been the ones crossing, recent weeks have seen an increase of women and children among smuggled passengers, signalling growing desperation and lack of prospects, according to UNHCR.

Among the most recent incidents, around 90 people believed to be Rohingya died of dehydration and starvation during a two-month journey. More than 30 survivors from the same vessel were rescued last weekend by Sri Lanka’s navy off that country’s coast.

“UNHCR is greatly saddened by this latest terrible ordeal, and commends the quick action of the Sri Lankan navy in rescuing this group and providing immediate medical attention,” Mahecic said. He added that the agency is ready to support the Sri Lankan authorities in assisting any among them who are in need of international protection.

Meanwhile, UNHCR is urging governments, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, which have accepted large numbers of refugees, to agree on protocols for the safe and quick disembarkation of rescued passengers and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance.

“UNHCR recognizes the regional dimension of the irregular movements of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants by sea. Genuine cooperative regional approaches that promote sharing of burdens and responsibility could offer asylum-seekers and refugees an alternative to dangerous and exploitative boat journeys,” Mahecic said.

The agency said it will facilitate discussions between governments and international organizations on this topic at a regional meeting to be held in Jakarta, Indonesia, in March. (**Source: UN Release).

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2014 Human Wrongs Watch