Fishing boats head out into the Bay of Bengal. UNHCR fears thousands could be stranded on smugglers’ boats between the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca and in need of rescue. Photo: UNHCR/S. H. Omi
Refugees and migrants crossing the seas of Southeast Asia died at a rate three times higher than those in the Mediterranean last year, a new United Nations report has found, highlighting the urgency of greater life-saving cooperation among the affected States.
The report, Mixed Maritime Movements in South-East Asia
, from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR
), states that those movements had been “three times more deadly” than in the Mediterranean last year, due largely to mistreatment by smugglers and disease on the boats.
Refugees and migrants often employ the same routes, modes of transport, and networks, and their movements are commonly referred to as “mixed movements.”
Across the region, an estimated 33,600 refugees and migrants of various nationalities had taken to smugglers' boats, including 32,600 in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, where the bulk of the passengers had been Rohingya and Bangladeshi, according to the report, which was
for the press by UNHCR spokesperson Andreas Needham and the regular bi-weekly briefing in Geneva today.
The first half of 2015 had seen the highest-ever estimated departures – 31,000 – while the number was 1,600 in the second half. The full-year departures were just over half of the record-setting previous year. This decrease can be attributed to a number of factors, including the discovery of mass graves along the Thailand-Malaysia land border with the remains of over 200 presumed earlier arrivals, government crackdowns on smuggling networks and scrutiny of traditional departure and arrival points.
But the 2015 fatality rate had still been three times higher in those waters than in the Mediterranean Sea, the report highlights. Some of the tales recorded in the report described harrowing experiences: death by starvation, people thrown overboard alive, and suffering from various debilitating diseases.
Some 370 people are believed to have died in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea during the year, the report says; not from drowning but from mistreatment and disease brought about by smugglers who abused and in many cases killed passengers with impunity. The toll also includes those killed in a fight over diminishing supplies on a boat that had been prevented from landing on two occasions. Some of these deaths could have been prevented with prompt disembarkation.
Root Causes Must Be Addressed
UNHCR believes that unless the root causes of displacement are addressed, people will continue risking their lives on smugglers' boats to seek safety and stability elsewhere.
Mr. Needham said that there are a number of processes in motion to address this issue.
There remains an urgent need for affected States to take concrete action to coordinate procedures for rescue at sea, predictable places to disembark passengers safely, as well as adequate reception and screening systems on arrival. People who fled their homes and cannot return due to an absence of protection should be granted temporary refuge and have access to basic rights and services while longer-term solutions are sought.
To minimize deaths at sea, safe and legal channels including labour migration and family reunification programs must be opened up for people leaving difficult conditions at home.
UNHCR hopes that labour migration arrangements could also be put in place for the Rohingya already in labour-importing countries, enabling them to contribute to the economies of their host and home countries.
Next month's Bali Process Ministerial Meeting will be a timely opportunity to make progress on these issues, Mr. Needham said.
A lifting of existing restrictions on freedom of movement and access to services throughout Rakhine state in Myanmar would allow thousands of people to live more normal lives and be less likely to risk dangerous sea journeys, he said.
UNHCR is also watching with interest the Bangladesh Government's plans to list hundreds of thousands of undocumented Rohingya in southeastern Bangladesh, and the agency hopes that the exercise will result in improved documentation and access to services.
Nearly 170,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis are estimated to have made the dangerous journey from the Bay of Bengal since 2012.