Over 20,000 people risked their lives in sea crossings in the Indian Ocean in the first half of this year, many of them Rohingya who fled Myanmar, according to a new report released today by the United Nations refugee agency.
Produced by a newly-established Maritime Movements Monitoring Unit at UNHCR’s Regional Office in Bangkok, the report focuses on departures from the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere passing through South-east Asia, and highlights the abuses people are facing on their journeys, and developments related to Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy.
It shows that more than 7,000 asylum-seekers and refugees who have travelled by sea are at present held in detention facilities in the region, including over 5,000 in Australia or its offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
“Because of its clandestine nature, the full extent of people smuggling remains hard to determine,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.
“But in-depth interviews with survivors have offered insights into what goes on during the long and arduous journey from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and beyond.”
The report estimates that 53,000 people departed irregularly by sea from the Bay of Bengal in the 12 months ending June 2014 – a 61 per cent increase over the previous 12 months. In the two years following the June 2012 outbreak of inter-communal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, some 87,000 people – mostly Rohingya but also Bangladeshis – embarked on the dangerous journey in search of safety and stability.
The main sailing season has continued to be between October and the first quarter of the year when seas are calmer. Typically, passengers were ferried on small boats to larger fishing or cargo boats that could each hold up to 700 people. Most were men, but there were also rising numbers of women and children.
According to the research, most passengers interviewed said they paid between $50 and $300 to board the boats and were at sea for an average of one to two weeks. Some waited for up to two months for their boat to take on more passengers. Many said they fell sick along the way. There are also unconfirmed reports of deaths due to illness, heat, a lack of food and water and severe beatings.
UNHCR cited “a very challenging protection environment” for refugees in the region. States, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and lack formal legal frameworks for dealing with refugees.
“Without a legal status they are often at risk of arrest, detention, and deportation under immigration laws,” said Mr. Edwards. “It also makes legal employment impossible and drives many people, including women and children, into exploitative and vulnerable situations.”