Thousands of refugees expected to take to boats for new life as Asia's monsoons end
|Rohingya migrant children who arrived in Indonesia by boat in May 2015. Photograph: Beawiharta/Reuters|
By Ben Doherty
October 17, 2015
UNHCR expects surge of ‘irregular’ migrants fleeing Bangladesh and Myanmar to use ‘sailing season’ to reach southern south-east Asian countries
Thousands of “irregular” migrants fleeing Bangladesh and Myanmar are expected to board boats for new countries in coming weeks as the end of the Asia’s south-west monsoon season reopening the Bay of Bengal-Andaman Sea route to south-east Asia.
In three years, the number of people boarding rickety fishing boats – leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh for countries further south in south-east Asia – has nearly tripled to 63,000 people last year, UN figures show.
Each year for the past three years, the post-monsoon spike in the number of people seeking to migrate irregularly by sea across the region has been higher and come earlier in the year.
A similar surge was expected this “sailing season”, Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, told Guardian Australia.
“The number of people leaving on smugglers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal have increased in recent years, and that trend is likely to continue unless the root causes [of their migration] are addressed,” she said.
In the first half of 2015, 31,000 people boarded boats in the region, a 34% increase on 2014’s record figure.
Nearly 100,000 people have tried to migrate by sea through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea since the start of 2014.
After a surge of boat departures early this year, the annual monsoon has brought quiet to the route over the past few months. But with the rainy season ending, a new wave of migration is expected.
After spending the northern summer rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean sea, the privately owned ship MY Phoenix – operating under the name MOAS, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station – is moving to the Bay of Bengal to assist stricken vessels in south-east Asia.
“MOAS will be shedding light on another aspect of this pressing global phenomenon in an area where there is no known NGO rescue presence at sea,” MOAS’s founder, Christopher Catrambone, said. “Once the monsoon rains subside, tens of thousands of Rohingya and others are expected to resume their dangerous sea crossings.”
But MOAS’s efforts to rescue people might be complicated by the politics of south-east Asia. Only two countries, Cambodia and the Philippines, are parties to the Refugees Convention, which formalises protections for refugees and allows people to claim asylum.
Many countries are expected to refuse to allow MY Phoenix to disembark passengers.
Migrant boat journeys across the Bay of Bengal usually start in the weeks immediately after the rains stop and Eid al-Adha – the Muslim festival of sacrifice – is completed. This year Eid al-Adha fell on 22 and 23 September.
In recent years, the smugglers who broker the trips have begun using larger metal-hulled boats that are less affected by monsoon weather and able to carry more people.
Migrants initially pay between $US50 and $US300 for passage, but many are then extorted by smugglers who demand thousands of dollars more from the passengers or their families, or else the migrants are abandoned at sea, on remote islands, or held in secret jungle camps.
Mass graves holding the bodies of hundreds of migrants were uncovered this year in Malaysia and Thailand.
At least 1,000 people are missing from journeys in 2015, presumed to have died or drowned at sea, or died at the hands of smugglers on land.
In May this year as many as 8,000 people were left stranded on boats at sea because south-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to let them land and, in some cases, towed their vessels back to sea.
Asylum seekers on board fought each other to death over dwindling food and water supplies, according to observers, and the UN warned the vessels would become “floating coffins” if they were not allowed to land.
The Philippines broke the impasse by offering to accept several thousand refugees, and spurring other countries to allow boats to land.
Many of the migrants have not yet found durable solutions.
Political violence is common in Bangladesh, and the country is experiencing an increasing wave of communal Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks, but most of the Bangladeshi nationals taken from the boats in May were found by the UNHCR not to have a claim to refugee status, but rather were economic migrants, and have been returned to their country.
A new migrant labour deal between Malaysia and Bangladesh – which could allow up to 1.5 million low-skilled Bengalis to find work in Malaysia – is hoped to ease the number seeking passage by boat.
However, those on boats in May who were Myanmarese Rohingya – an ethnic minority who face intense apartheid-style persecution in Myanmar – remain mostly in camps in the country where they disembarked.
“Many Rohingya who left Myanmar cited mixed reasons for leaving, including difficult conditions at home or in camps for people displaced by the 2012 inter-communal violence. They said limited freedom of movement and limited access to services made it hard to work or survive,” Tan said.
“The Rohingya who left Bangladesh felt there were no prospects where they were. Some had spent more than 20 years in government-run refugee camps, or in makeshift sites where they were subject to exploitation due to their lack of documentation.”
After a temporary solution to the boat deadlock was brokered in May, there has been little progress on a longer-term regional plan for dealing with flows of migrants by boat.
The UN’s $13m appeal for funds to respond to the maritime crisis is only 45% funded, and a multinational taskforce, agreed to by countries at a meeting in May, has not yet formed.
“A taskforce could help countries to coordinate rescue at sea efforts, pre-identify places of disembarkation, and agree on common standards on reception and solutions for boat arrivals,” Tan said. “These issues need to be discussed and agreed on before the onset of an emergency, not in the middle of a crisis.
“This is a regional challenge that calls for regional solutions. With an emphasis on saving lives, UNHCR is asking countries to move beyond ad hoc, disparate responses which could allow smugglers to exploit gaps. Instead, they should work together to address the problem comprehensively in countries of origin, transit and destination.”