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Is the Andaman Sea refugee crisis set to resume?

Rohingya Muslims wait for a small ferry boat at a refugee camp outside Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state. After May's deadly refugee boat crisis, observers warn that a new wave of migrants and asylum seekers could soon take to the seas. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

By Jack Wyatt
October 5, 2015

With onset of sailing season, regional governments appear unprepared

There are fears the coming end of the monsoon season on the Bay of Bengal will trigger a new flow of migrants and asylum seekers streaming southward across the Andaman Sea.

Rights groups and advocates for migrants warn that regional authorities may be alarmingly unprepared. Some fear a repeat of the May refugee crisis, which saw thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea, with multiple countries at first reluctant to take them in.

"Normally by the end of [September] or the week following [the Muslim festival of] Eid al-Adha, in early October, we see boats begin to move again," said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which advocates for the rights of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya.

While the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers who will make the journey remain uncertain, continued factors pushing Rohingya and Bangladeshis to leave make some flow of migrants a near certainty, she added.

In May, thousands of people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh to escape persecution and poverty.

The crisis made international headlines after mass graves of trafficking victims were found along the Thailand-Malaysia border. Governments threatened to crack down on human trafficking, prompting smuggling networks to abandon their human cargo at sea. Thousands of people, mainly Bangladeshi and Rohingya, were left adrift on leaking boats and shuttled between countries.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimated that 370 people have died making the dangerous crossing in 2015 alone.

After an extended stalemate, an emergency meeting between regional states on May 29 in Bangkok saw many migrants find relative safety in Malaysia and Indonesia. As the monsoon season began, the flow of people soon slowed due to adverse sailing conditions. However, with the season's approaching end, observers warn that a new round of departures could soon begin again.

This May 14 photo shows migrants and asylum seekers on a boat drifting in Thai waters. Rights groups say authorities may be unprepared for a new wave of people trying to reach their countries by boats. (Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP)

'The picture is not very bright'

"I have a feeling that the crisis will continue and the flow will continue from Bangladesh," said Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, regional coordinator of the nongovernmental organization Caram Asia, which works on health and migration.

The pressing issue, he said, is not only whether governments are ready to house new migrants, but whether all the stakeholders involved, including the international community, are prepared to address the problem.

"We need U.N. agencies to be truthful and we need the international community to say it out openly," he said.

"We cannot play the same politics of the past that we have played — just 'diplomacy, diplomacy,' but in reality nothing is happening … We don't want to see any lives lost on the sea or in mass graves … but the picture is not very bright."

The Arakan Project's Lewa believes that there could be relatively few sailings early on as smuggling networks test the waters.

"The beginning of the season will be very low, not like previous years at all, and there is no typical pattern," she said. "But with Thailand closed, it will not be like it was in the other seasons. I think we will see test boats first. If they are successful, more will come."

During the May crisis, more than 1,100 migrants who landed on Langkawi island in northern Malaysia were taken to detention centers.

Reports from migrant support groups suggest that of these migrants, more than 500 Bangladeshis were returned with the help of Bangladeshi authorities while 200 remain in a detention center. The Rohingya remained in the center because Malaysia was not willing or able to send these migrants back to face almost certain persecution in Myanmar.

The U.N. Refugee Agency recently reported that in the first six months of 2015, 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis departed from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats, representing a 34 percent increase from 2014. The rise has been attributed to a number of factors, including political developments within Myanmar prompting more persecuted Rohingya to flee.

Despite increasing migrant numbers, Al Rashid says regional governments have an opportunity to reduce the impact of trafficking networks — but they must act quickly and together.

"Trafficking networks are multinational companies" made up of large and small operators, he said. "If the big shots come back, the operation will continue. If governments act within the next month, no one will be able to come in, but cooperation is needed."

A Rohingya woman from Myanmar offers prayers during a rally over the refugee boat crisis at a hall in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur on June 3. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)


One particular area of concern is Bangladesh's lack of enforcement on trafficking cases. According to Al Rashid, authorities in Bangladesh have failed to complete prosecutions on a single trafficking case related to the boat crisis.

"Out of 1,681 cases of trafficking in Bangladesh, from those filed, those who have died, disappeared, or been killed, there has been no judgment yet," he said. "That is the failure of Bangladesh. With failed enforcement, traffickers will certainly use it to continue."

Thailand has arrested and issued warrants for more than 15 officials accused of involvement in trafficking, including army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, a provincial mayor and a number of policemen. Thailand has also announced that it will seal the border between Myanmar and Ranong province, through which human traffickers have smuggled thousands of people.

The attempted shutdown of the overland routes has changed the flow of people throughout the region. This, combined with the detention of roughly 500 Rohingya migrants in immigration detention centers, has made Thailand a less desirable transit or destination point for migrants and smugglers.

According to the Arakan Project, which has spoken with Rohingya migrants following the May crisis, Indonesia is also not a desirable destination. This should keep the focus on Malaysia as the preferred destination country for migrants from the Bay of Bengal.

Regional governments and international agencies have been slow to identify a timely and effective response to these movements.

The migrant flows from the Bay of Bengal are known as "mixed flows," meaning there are asylum seekers in the group — Rohingya, for the most part — and mainly Bangladeshi migrants who are leaving to find undocumented work abroad.

As such, the responses and solutions for each group differ widely. The Rohingya on the one hand, are fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where anti-Muslim sentiment has sparked deadly riots and displaced tens of thousands.

Bangladeshi migrants, on the other hand, often view Malaysia as a land of opportunity, and the Malaysian government has done little to dispel this image.

Ultimately, the problem can't be solved unless authorities deal with the factors pushing more and more migrants and asylum seekers to leave their homes in the first place.

"Unless the root causes driving people to leave Myanmar and Bangladesh are addressed, we can expect more people to risk their lives on smugglers' boats," Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Refugee Agency, told

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