A UNHCR report on Mixed Maritime Movements in Southeast Asia, released on 23 February, details the unfolding tragedy of Rohingya migrants making the perilous journey south from Bangladesh and western Myanmar in search of security and work.
More than one million Rohingya live in Myanmar, mostly in Rakhine State. In the northern part of the state they form the majority. Following rioting in 2012, as many as 160,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya (most of whom were denied citizenship under a 1982 law and therefore do not have identity papers) were forced from their homes by predominantly Buddhist ethnic Rakhines. Large numbers fled to Bangladesh; more than 100,000 sought shelter in camps for internally displaced people inside Myanmar. IDPs have to ask permission to move outside a guarded perimeter, for example if they wish to visit a doctor, and conditions have been compared to those of a prison camp.
The determination of large numbers of Rohingya to escape de facto incarceration and continuing attacks, which they say are abetted or at least tolerated by the authorities, has fueled a people-trafficking business in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea that UNHCR estimates is worth between US$50 and US$100 million anually.
The mechanics of this business are horrific. Once migrants board a smuggling vessel they become units of merchandise. Having paid the smuggler to board, they must pay the crew for food, which in some cases may amount to no more than a few handfuls of rice per day. They must pay to be landed at the end of the voyage (non-payment will lead to beatings, and extended captivity on a holding vessel). On disembarkation they will be taken to a smuggling camp, which they will only be able to leave after further payment. When they are eventually released, if they have not been able to acquire forged documents, they will be at the mercy of police and immigration officials.
In May 2015, migrant vessels were intercepted by naval patrols from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. Governments dithered over the appropriate response to the influx of desperate refugees. Some were allowed to land; others were towed back into international waters.
In the same month, Thai police uncovered mass graves near abandoned smuggling camps on the Thai-Malaysia border, intimating that hundreds of unidentified victims may have been buried in the area.
The ensuing security clampdown on people traffickers reduced the number of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar from around 31,000 in the first six months of 2015 to 1,600 in the second half of the year. In the initial period of the crackdown, traffickers, for the first time faced with a real and sustained threat from police and immigration officials, are known to have murdered migrants in their custody and disposed of their bodies, a “commercial” decision in a shrinking market and a precaution against prosecution.
The number of migrant fatalities in Southeast Asia in 2015 is put at 370. The figure for the last four years is put at 2,000. The 2015 casualty figure works out at one fatality per 12 migrants, which is three times higher than the equivalent fatality rate on the Mediterranean migration route. Unlike the Mediterranean migration, most victims did not die as a result of drowning but because of maltreatment – beatings and starvation – and disease. In one particularly horrific case 13 people are reported to have died as passengers abandoned on an overcrowded vessel fought for a small and dwindling supply of drinking water.
The countries of Southeast Asia and Australasia have responded to the problem by increasing maritime security. This produced a short-term spike in fatalities and a drastic cut in the number of people who have tried to escape by sea, but it has done nothing to diminish the underlying impetus for migration. The lesson from other migration routes – from South America to North America, from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe – is that when one avenue is blocked, another will open up.
“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,” a UNHCR spokesperson said when discussing the February report. “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.” UNHCR has also called for legal channels, including labor migration and family reunification programs, to be opened up, and points out reasonably that “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.”
It will become clear in the course of 2016 whether the authorities in half a dozen countries are able to craft a humane and effective response to the Southeast Asian migration crisis, or whether migrants will continue to go missing under unimaginably brutal circumstances and at a rate significantly higher than in the Mediterranean region.