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Irregular Maritime Movements in South-East Asia - 2014

Aman Ullah
RB Article
May 9, 2015

“The finding of a mass grave at a trafficking camp sadly comes as little surprise. The long involvement of Thai officials in trafficking means that an independent investigation with UN involvement is necessary to uncover the truth and hold those responsible to account.”

Brad Adams, Asia director

The discovery of more than 30 bodies in a human trafficking camp should prompt Thai authorities to authorize an independent, United Nations-assisted investigation, commit to publish its findings, and bring those responsible to justice, including any government officials involved, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN and others, including the United States, that have called for an end to trafficking in Thailand should urgently press the government to end official complicity and willful blindness in rampant trafficking in the country.

On May 1, 2015, a joint military-police taskforce discovered at least 30 bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the Sadao district of Songkhla province close to the Thai-Malaysian border. Many were buried in shallow graves, while others were covered with blankets and clothes and left in the open. Police reports indicate the dead are ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Bangladesh who starved to death or died of disease while held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms before smuggling them into Malaysia. Traffickers controlling this camp apparently departed into the mountainous jungle, taking surviving Rohingya with them. 

Human trafficking is a big business in Southern Thailand, with thousands crossing the borders between Malaysia and Thailand every day.

“Trafficking of persons in Thailand has long been out of control, something that senior officials have admitted to Human Rights Watch and others,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The finding of a mass grave at a trafficking camp sadly comes as little surprise. The long involvement of Thai officials in trafficking means that an independent investigation with UN involvement is necessary to uncover the truth and hold those responsible to account.”

For years, human rights organizations and investigative journalists have reported on the thriving human trafficking networks that operate with support and protection from corrupt officials in southern Thailand. Last year, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to the worst possible rating – tier 3 – on its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, for failing to combat human trafficking.

Rohingya fleeing abuses, persecution, and hardship in Burma’s Arakan State or Bangladesh are often trafficked and abused by networks working with official protection, while in other cases victims simply receive little protection from Thai authorities.

Rohingya who are apprehended in Thailand are treated as “illegal immigrants” subject to deportation without regard to the threats facing them in Burma. Rohingya men are sometimes detained in overcrowded immigration detention facilities across the country, while women and children have been sent to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Many more are believed to be transferred through corrupt arrangements into the hands of human trafficking gangs where they face cruel treatment and no prospect of assistance from Thai authorities.

Around 25,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers' boats from the Bay of Bengal between January and March this year, almost doubling the number over the same period in 2014, says a UNHCR periodic report released yesterday.

According to interviews of those who have reached Thailand and Malaysia, 300 people are estimated to have died at sea this year and 320 others in the last three months last year as a result of starvation, dehydration and beating by boat crew, the report adds.

“Between 40 to 60 percent of 25,000 people are thought to have originated from the Rakhine State of Myanmar, although many of them embarked on the ships from Bangladesh,” the report says.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has prepared the report to oversee irregular maritime movement in Southeast Asia.

Approximately 63,000 people undertook irregular maritime journeys that passed through South-East Asia in 2014. The vast majority—an estimated 62,000 people—departed from Bangladesh and Myanmar bound for Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds of others followed routes through the Indian Ocean from South Asia and Indonesia to Australia, and across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia to Indonesia.

Serious and often deadly criminal activity and human rights abuses are commonplace along this route in particular, with survivors saying that human smugglers and boat crews routinely kill passengers with impunity. Approximately 750 people are estimated to have died attempting the passage in 2014, mostly due to starvation, dehydration, and beatings by crew members. Hundreds more are alleged to have died in smuggling camps in Thailand for the same reasons. Several individuals reported incidents of rape and some said they had been trafficked, though the coercive conditions of travel often blurred the distinction between smuggling and trafficking.

Of some 62,000 irregular departures from the Bay of Bengal in 2014, 58,000 are estimated to have departed from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border, a 12 per cent increase over 2013, and nearly triple the number of departures estimated in 2012. Approximately 130,000 people have departed irregularly by sea from this border area since January 2012. At least 4,000 people also embarked from the Sittwe area in Myanmar in 2014.

Irregular maritime departures from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border most frequently embarked from Teknaf, Bangladesh, and from Maungdaw, Myanmar. Many people who ultimately embarked from Teknaf had travelled there from Myanmar either overland or by crossing the Naf River.

Departures from the Bay of Bengal peak during the traditional sailing season, that begins in October, when calmer waters follow the end of the rainy season; more than half of all estimated departures since 2012 embarked between the months of October and January. The start of the current sailing season was marked by a greater surge than in previous years, with 28,000 estimated departures from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border in the last quarter of 2014, a 23 per cent increase over the same period in 2013.

In 2014, Bangladeshi authorities reportedly rescued or arrested over 2,400 people (including smugglers and crew) attempting to depart irregularly by sea from Bangladesh, some of whom originated from Myanmar. Following the rescue in November of a boat southeast of St. Martin’s Island carrying nearly 600 passengers, dozens of passengers from Myanmar were charged with illegal entry.

UNHCR has interviewed recent maritime arrivals in Thailand and Malaysia who travelled on boats that cumulatively carried as many as 15,000 passengers in 2014. The median age of individuals interviewed by UNHCR was 19; one-third were under the age of 18. Some children who travelled unaccompanied were as young as eight years old.

Virtually all persons of concern interviewed by UNHCR intended to travel to Malaysia, where many had relatives. Most were either referred to smugglers by family and friends or recruited from their villages by smugglers. Some individuals were reportedly forced onto boats in Bangladesh and Myanmar against their will, including unaccompanied children who said they had been abducted by smugglers and marched onto boats at gunpoint.

Individuals voluntarily departing from the Bay of Bengal paid between USD 50-300 to board small boats that ferried groups of 5-30 passengers to larger fishing or cargo vessels with capacities ranging from 100-800 passengers. The boats on which interviewees travelled in 2014 carried average loads of approximately 380 passengers.

A few individuals arranged their own, usually smaller boats, without the aid of smugglers, but upon reaching land in Thailand were forced to engage smuggling networks to cross into Malaysia.

Across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, most passengers travelling irregularly by sea have been men, but many ships have also carried women and children, who are often kept in separate quarters. Approximately 10 per cent of these passengers in 2014 have been women. Boat crews in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea were armed and from either Myanmar or Thailand.

Although the usual sailing time between the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border and Thailand ranged between 5-10 days, individuals interviewed by UNHCR spent an average of two weeks at sea, and some said they were at sea for as long as two months, their boats idle or plying the coastline to take on additional passengers.

Conditions on board varied. Passengers were generally fed once a day or once every two days, but some said they were not fed at all. Meals consisted of a handful of rice, dhal, or dry noodles, plain except for occasional morsels of dried fish or chili peppers. Water was usually provided once or twice a day in small quantities; interviewees described drinking out of the bottom slice of a 350 ml plastic water bottle or, in some cases, from the bottle cap. Almost all individuals were, for the duration of the boat journey, confined to crouching within a space half the size of a prayer rug, shoulder to shoulder with others. Boat crews prohibited passengers from, and physically assaulted them for, attempts to move around or obtain more rations.

One in every three interviewees said at least one other passenger on their boat died en route; one in every 10 said 10 or more people died on board. Deaths were attributed to severe beatings by the crew, lack of food and water, illness, and heat. Interviewees described being beaten by wooden sticks, plastic piping, and rubber engine belts. Some passengers reportedly jumped off boats in desperation, while others went missing when forced to swim ashore or wade through waist-deep water upon reaching the coast of Thailand. Extrapolating the number of deaths at sea reported by interviewees in Thailand and Malaysia, approximately 750 people are estimated to have died along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea route in 2014.

In Thailand

Upon reaching the coast of Thailand, disembarkation was generally arranged by ferrying passengers to shore in smaller boats. They were then transported through the night in pickup trucks or vans with 15-20 others, forced to sit or lie atop one another as they were taken to camps located in or around hills, jungles, and plantations, sequestered by wooden fences and under plastic sheeting. Individuals were separated for departure to Malaysia depending on when and whether their relatives were able to make payments to smugglers.

Demands for additional payment were sometimes made in transit, but more often after individuals arrived in Thailand. Calls to relatives demanding payment were accompanied by threats or, when payment was not immediate, beatings and other acts of torture, including inducing stress positions for prolonged periods and, in one recent example, rubbing chili powder into the eyes and genitals of some individuals who had sought to pray on Eid al-Adha. Several interviewees said they heard of women raped in the camps.

Approximately one-third of interviewees said at least one person died in camps in which they were held, for similar reasons as at sea: illness, starvation, dehydration, and killings by smugglers of individuals who attempted to escape or were unable to pay. In the last year, hundreds of people are alleged to have died this way in camps in Thailand.

Many individuals had been unaware of additional costs to be paid post-departure, while some understood that further payment would be required upon arrival in Thailand or after indentured labor in Malaysia. The total cost demanded by smugglers generally ranged from USD 1,600-2,400 per person. Given the number of departures, the human smuggling trade from the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia is estimated to have generated annual revenues exceeding USD 100 million in each of 2013 and 2014 and over USD 250 million in revenue since 2012.

Payments were made through a combination of hard currency, bank transfer, and mobile payment systems such as bKash. One man from Buthidaung, Myanmar, who had recently reunited with a brother in Malaysia, explained how he paid the MYR 8,000 (USD 2,340) that smugglers demanded for his release: his parents sold their property for MYR 5,000 (USD 1,460) and deposited the proceeds into the Myanmar bank account of a money courier in Yangon who, upon confirming the deposit, instructed an associate in Kuala Lumpur to deliver the same amount in cash to the man’s brother. The brother contributed an additional MYR 3,000 (USD 880) and deposited the total into a Malaysian bank account specified by the smugglers. Two days later, the man met his brother at a bus station after being released from a holding house in Kedah, Malaysia. He had spent 27 days in the camps in Thailand, first in Ranong and later in the border area near Padang Besar.

A few interviewees paid the full amount in vain, or were forced to pay twice, when their journey went awry, either because their camp was raided after payment had been made or they were deported from and returned to Thailand only to revert to the control of another smuggler. In the course of conducting protection assessments of people rescued from smugglers’ camps, UNHCR observed that some individuals had been previously rescued. The prospect of indefinite stays in Immigration Detention Centers (IDCs) or shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) had led them to seek a way out, usually by re-entering the cycle of smuggling.

Some maritime arrivals rescued by Thai authorities have been particularly vulnerable, such as children separated from their families, those with physical or mental disabilities, or the many who have lost sensation and mobility likely due to beriberi, which is caused by malnutrition and vitamin B1 deficiency. Effectively paralyzed, some of these individuals have been found abandoned by smugglers when their camps were raided by Thai authorities.

Recently identified groups of Rohingya and Bangladeshi arrivals in southern Thailand have undergone screening by a multi-functional government team to assess whether they are victims of trafficking. Those found to be victims of trafficking are protected by Thai law and are transferred to shelters, thereby facilitating their rehabilitation as well as the investigation and prosecution of suspected smugglers.

In Malaysia

Although most people who departed irregularly by sea from the Bay of Bengal are believed to have disembarked in Thailand before moving onward to Malaysia, Malaysian authorities arrested 299 individuals who arrived directly in Malaysia on three separate boats in 2014. UNHCR had access to the 230 passengers from the first two boat arrivals in April and May, and sought information on 69 individuals who arrived in September.

UNHCR interviewed several other individuals who had disembarked directly in Malaysia without transiting through Thailand or being detected by Malaysian authorities. Such individuals said they had disembarked in Langkawi or had been ferried by speedboat directly from the Andaman Sea to the Malaysian mainland.

Reports of direct disembarkation in Malaysia also followed the surge of departures from the Bay of Bengal that began in October, with indications that smugglers were demanding payment from passengers at sea near the maritime border of Thailand and Malaysia, rather than in camps along the land border.

In Indonesia

Hundreds of Rohingya who originally travelled by sea from the Bay of Bengal and reached Malaysia have in recent years undertaken further irregular maritime journeys to Indonesia across the Strait of Malacca. Such journeys have generally consisted of daylong trips on boats that carry 5-50 passengers and traverse one of two routes: from Klang, Malaysia, to Medan, Indonesia, and from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to Batam or Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia. Persons of concern from other countries of origin also reportedly travelled these routes, as did Indonesian migrant workers.

In 2014, 111 persons of concern, who identified themselves as Rohingya, registered with UNHCR (but may have arrived in previous years) in Indonesia. As of 31 December 2014, the total number of Rohingya registered with UNHCR in Indonesia was 729, of whom 699 have been recognized as refugees. Almost all are presumed to have arrived by boat from Malaysia, and approximately one in every five had previously registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. The few who arrived in Indonesia directly by sea from the Bay of Bengal intended to travel to Malaysia, but their boats veered off course due to weather or engine failure and drifted until being rescued by other vessels and taken to Indonesia.

The cost of maritime journeys to Indonesia varied depending on whether individuals had paid smugglers to go only to Indonesia or to be taken to Australia. The price per adult—children travelled half-price or as part of a family package—generally ranged between USD 300-700 to Indonesia and USD 1,500-3,000 to Australia, although attempts to reach Australia declined sharply in 2014.

Rohingya refugees in Indonesia who had attempted to reach Australia travelled first to Jakarta by bus and then flew further east to Makassar or Kendari, from where they were meant to board boats to Australia. Many did board such boats, some repeatedly, but all returned to Indonesia due to weather, engine failure, or interception by Australian authorities. Hundreds who originally departed by sea from the Bay of Bengal now reside in community housing units in Indonesia and, in the absence of any other durable solutions, await resettlement to third countries.

Beyond South-East Asia

Ten boats travelling towards Australia carrying a total of 441 reported passengers were intercepted by Australian authorities in 2014. Seven boats with 205 total passengers were returned to Indonesia; all but one of the 79 passengers on two boats from Sri Lanka were returned to Sri Lanka following screening procedures (the passenger who was not returned will be transferred to an offshore processing center); and 157 people who travelled on a boat from India were transferred from the Australian mainland to an offshore processing center on Nauru, where they remain detained. 

Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, over 6,200 persons of concern to UNHCR who travelled by sea were in immigration detention facilities as of 31 December 2014, including over 4,000 who were either in Australia or the offshore processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Onward Movement

There are over 42,000 persons of concern currently registered in Malaysia who identify themselves as Rohingya, including over 10,000 who registered, but not necessarily arrived, in 2014. Most are presumed to have departed from Bangladesh or Myanmar by sea, disembarked in Thailand, and crossed overland into Malaysia, where they largely reside in the vicinities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

The overland crossing involved both walking and transfer by vehicle across the border into Malaysia, then confinement in holding houses located in Alor Setar, Sungai Petani, Butterworth, or Penang. Such houses are referred to—using the English word—as “receive” houses, consisting of one or two floors that hold up to 50 people at a time in several rooms. Most individuals did not spend more than a few days in a holding house before being released to relatives or friends at a nearby location, such as a tea shop or bus stop, where smugglers sometimes demanded a final payment of what they called rent or taxi money amounting to several hundred Malaysian ringgit.

Confinement in a holding house lasted longer for those who had been transferred to Malaysia without yet making payment, a development some said was triggered by smugglers’ concerns over authorities raiding camps in Thailand. One teenage girl from Myanmar was detained in a holding house for 11 days while her family tried in vain to arrange payment. She and another relative were released when her family agreed for her to be married to a Rohingya man already in Malaysia who, in exchange, paid the fares of both her and her relative.

Since late 2013, UNHCR has seen an influx of Rohingya persons of concern in Malaysia with serious medical conditions—apparently developed while at sea and in smugglers’ camps in Thailand—who were either referred to UNHCR by government hospitals, relatives, and community members, or dropped off by smugglers or locals at UNHCR premises in Kuala Lumpur. They presented with symptoms that included acute poly-neuropathy, ascending paralysis, inability to ambulate unassisted, pain, difficulty breathing, and confusion or memory loss. Many were initially misdiagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, but UNHCR medical personnel later determined, in consultation with physicians who treated the patients in hospital, that these persons of concern were in fact suffering from beriberi, as a result of severe malnutrition and vitamin B1 deficiency during the course of their journey.

In 2014, 212 persons of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia—including 59 minors—presented with symptoms of beriberi, compared to a dozen during the period from August 2012-November 2013. The influx reached a peak of 37 new cases in February 2014. Two individuals who presented with beriberi symptoms died while admitted to hospital, within one week of approaching UNHCR. Health care providers, community leaders, and persons of concern in Malaysia have reported dozens of additional deaths.

UNHCR was aware of isolated maritime movements from Malaysia to Indonesia, Singapore, and Timor-Leste, and intervened with local authorities to ensure that persons of concern had access to asylum.

The UNHCR in its report recommends law-enforcement measures be accompanied by efforts to reduce the need for migrants and refugees to turn to smugglers in the first place by, among others, addressing the root causes driving them to undertake these dangerous journeys and providing safe alternatives for them to access asylum and protection.

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