- In 2015, mixed maritime movements in South-East Asia were characterized by two distinct phases: from January to May, when the volume crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea was significantly greater than during the same period in previous years; and from June to December, when such movements all but disappeared following the abandonment of thousands of refugees and migrants at sea in May.
- Some 1,600 refugees and migrants were estimated to have departed by sea from the Bay of Bengal in the second half of 2015, 96% less than in the second half of 2014. By contrast, the 31,000 departures estimated in the first half of 2015 were 34% higher than in the first half of 2014.
- Refugees familiar with the route told UNHCR in interviews that the sharp decline in departures in the second half of 2015 was a result of increased scrutiny by—and of—authorities at both departure and arrival points and harsher conditions upon arrival, as demonstrated by the discovery of mass graves and the continued detention in Malaysia of the hundreds of refugees who disembarked in May.
- In total, approximately 33,600 refugees and migrants travelled through South-East Asia in mixed maritime movements in 2015, including approximately 1,000 who either crossed the Strait of Malacca or attempted to reach Australia from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam.
- Mixed maritime movements originating from the Bay of Bengal in particular continued to result in scores of deaths at a fatality rate three times higher than in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, approximately 370 refugees and migrants who departed from the Bay of Bengal are estimated to have died before reaching land, mostly from starvation, dehydration, disease, and abuse by people smugglers.
Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea
As in previous years, mixed maritime movements originating in the Bay of Bengal generally departed from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border, in the area spanning from Teknaf in Bangladesh to Maungdaw in Myanmar. An estimated 30,700 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar departed from this area in 2015, with an additional 2,000 believed to have embarked near Sittwe in Myanmar. Since 2012, nearly 170,000 refugees and migrants—equal to about 5% of the combined populations of the bordering districts of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and Maungdaw in Myanmar—are believed to have travelled by sea from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Approximately 12 of every 1,000 people who embark on mixed maritime movements from the Bay of Bengal do not survive the boat journey. This means as many as 2,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya may have died before ever reaching land in the past four years. Smugglers are culpable for virtually all these deaths, which are almost entirely the result of hunger, thirst, illness, or beatings and gunshot wounds inflicted by boat crews. The insufficient food on board—usually not more than one or two handfuls of rice per day—has resulted in severe malnutrition causing beriberi. In the first half of 2015, 77 Rohingya who approached the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur presented with symptoms of beriberi.
Until early 2015, survivors usually disembarked discreetly in southern Thailand and were moved by smugglers to jungle camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border. They were then held for ransoms of up to US$2,000, usually extorted by calling a captive’s family and forcing them to listen to the cries of their loved ones being beaten.
Annual revenues generated by people smuggling in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea are estimated to range between US$50-100 million. Head smugglers reaped most of the profits; their recruitment agents, often family and friends of potential passengers, were reportedly paid US$40-65 for each passenger they loaded or, in some cases, kidnapped.
According to Thai news reports, ship owners received about US$200-250 per head, captains took a 10-15% cut of that, and each crew member was paid about US$1,000 per trip. Competition forced ship owners to lower their prices in recent years, but each trip still reportedly generated profits of up to US$60,000.
Authorities, smugglers, and potential passengers have exercised greater caution in the wake of heightened scrutiny over maritime movements following the events of May 2015, when at least 5,000 refugees and migrants were stranded at sea after being abandoned by smugglers.
Abandoned at Sea
In late 2014 and early 2015, UNHCR and the Arakan Project, an NGO that tracks maritime movements in the Bay of Bengal, began noticing a divergence from smugglers’ usual practice of disembarking people to Thailand and then demanding payment from relatives in jungle camps before taking them overland into Malaysia. Hundreds of people were said to have perished in the jungle camps, with no record of their deaths, no accounting for their lives, and no word to their families.
Ethnic Rohingya who had recently arrived in Malaysia by boat were also telling UNHCR that demands for their ransoms had been made at sea, and upon payment, they had disembarked in groups of 60-80 directly to Malaysia, either to the island of Langkawi or to the mainland.
Around the same time, according to a Reuters report, Thai authorities opened an investigation into a smuggler in Thailand, based on a complaint filed by a Rohingya roti seller whose nephew was being held hostage, even though the roti seller had already paid the ransom. The nephew was reportedly killed in retaliation. On 28 April 2015, the smuggler under investigation was arrested.
Three days later, Thai authorities discovered five bodies next to a camp in the southern province of Songkhla. On 2 May 2015, they found 21 more bodies at the same site, then six more a few kilometres away. On 7 May 2015, 30 new graves were unearthed near another camp.
The ensuing crackdown on human smuggling and trafficking networks in Thailand prevented smugglers from disembarking thousands of refugees and migrants still at sea. Rather than risk capture by authorities, the smugglers cut their losses. On or around 9 May 2015, they consolidated passengers into fewer boats, packing upwards of 1,000 people on 30-metre long trawlers, and absconded in the empty boats they had salvaged.
Over 5,000 people were left stranded at sea on at least eight boats—there were unconfirmed reports of more—most of which were drifting in the waters just off the resort islands of Koh Lipe, Thailand, and Langkawi, Malaysia. The abandoned passengers managed to navigate the vessels towards the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, but authorities in each country initially refused to allow the vessels to land. Instead, they sent naval personnel to provide food and water, repair engines, and escort the vessels back into international waters.
Deaths and Rescues
On 10 May 2015, Acehnese fishermen helped rescue a boat carrying nearly 600 Bangladeshis and Rohingya that had drifted near the coast of Lhokseumawe, Indonesia. The next day, 1,110 more people from two more boats came ashore in Langkawi, Malaysia, where authorities enlisted the help of local Rohingya communities to locate and identify hundreds who had scattered across the island. A fourth boat and its 116 Bangladeshi passengers were rescued by Bangladeshi authorities near St. Martin’s Island the following day.
On 14 May 2015, journalists and Thai authorities located a fifth boat carrying around 400 people off the coast of Koh Lipe. The authorities provided food and water before towing the boat further out to sea.
Around the same time, approximately 850 passengers on a sixth boat floating off the Sumatran coast between Langsa and Medan engaged in, or hid from, a deadly confrontation over the little water that remained on board. They had come into contact with naval authorities on at least two occasions in previous days, and both times were reportedly towed away from shore. In the confrontation that followed, at least 13 people were hacked to death or drowned after jumping or being pushed into the sea. Eight hundred and twenty people were rescued by fishermen on 15 May 2015, though one of them, a three-year-old girl, died of tetanus five days later.
The same day of the rescue, 106 Bangladeshis and Rohingya were found on an island in southern Thailand, also abandoned by people smugglers. Although most remain in detention or in shelters in Thailand, a group of 11 escaped from their shelter in January 2016.
On 20 May 2015, the boat discovered by journalists and Thai authorities in the waters off Koh Lipe was sighted near Langsa, Indonesia, and rescued by fishermen. Survivors said 10 people on their boat had died en route. A Rohingya woman from Maungdaw, travelling with her three children, remembers four men stricken with diarrhea dying on consecutive days, each one wrapped in a cloth, given funeral prayers, then dropped overboard. Another man who argued with the crew about the lack of food was beaten nearly to death, but was still visibly struggling as he, too, was wrapped in a cloth and tossed into the sea.
Over the next 10 days, Myanmar authorities found a seventh and eighth boat off the Myanmar coast and disembarked over 900 Bangladeshis and Rohingya. There were also reports of dozens of bodies washing ashore along the coast of Rakhine State, Myanmar. In Malaysia, 139 graves believed to be those of people smuggled from Bangladesh and Myanmar were discovered near the border with Thailand. Another 24 were found in August 2015.
In total, the remains of over 220 people were unearthed in or around smugglers’ camps in Malaysia and Thailand in 2015.
In Malaysia, 2,498 Rohingya were in detention as of 31 December 2015, 53% more than the 1,634 detained at the end of 2014. This includes all 375 Rohingya who disembarked in Langkawi in May 2015, and whom the Malaysian Government intended to resettle within one year of their arrival, though without consulting UNHCR or potential resettlement countries. Given the potential pull factor and limited availability of resettlement—there is only enough resettlement capacity for less than 1% of refugees worldwide—alternative solutions are required for Rohingya who disembarked in Indonesia and Malaysia. Such solutions may include temporary refuge or alternative humanitarian stay measures that ensure access to health, education, and work, which would confer dignity and self-reliance while also easing the burden on host countries.
Status of May-July 2015 Disembarkations
A series of regional meetings was convened to address states’ concerns over the large number of refugees and migrants travelling by sea, resulting in common outcomes that included prioritizing saving lives, combating people smuggling and trafficking, expanding legal migration alternatives, and confronting the root causes of such movements:
- 20 May 2015 – Putrajaya, Malaysia: The foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand met and Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to offer “temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community.”
- 29 May 2015 – Bangkok, Thailand: The Royal Thai Government invited affected countries in the region to a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, resulting in 17 proposals for immediate response, prevention of irregular migration, and addressing root causes.
- 2 July 2015 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: An Emergency ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime Concerning Irregular Movement of Persons in Southeast Asia recommended the creation of a joint task force and trust fund to respond to the mixed movements of refugees and migrants.
- 27-28 November 2015 – Jakarta, Indonesia: The countries party to the 20 August 2013 Jakarta Declaration on Addressing Irregular Movement of Persons participated in a roundtable discussion to identify root causes, explore potential responses, and foster regional cooperation, including by using the Sustainable Development Goals as a guideline and strengthening existing multilateral mechanisms such as the Bali Process.
- 4 December 2015 – Bangkok, Thailand: Countries that participated in the 29 May 2015 Bangkok Special Meeting reconvened to explore the possibility of an “Action Agenda” for implementing the 17 proposals of the 29 May 2015 Bangkok Special Meeting, with further steps to be discussed by the main affected countries—Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—on the sidelines of the Ad Hoc Group Senior Officials’ Meeting of the Bali Process on 1-2 February 2016.
Beyond the Bay of Bengal
Based on media reports, 263 people, 97% of whom were from South or South-East Asia, attempted to reach Australia—or, in one case, New Zealand—by boat in 2015. Each of the nine vessels that made the attempt was either intercepted by Australian authorities, apprehended by Indonesian authorities, or both. The vessels departed from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam, and carried passengers from Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam.
As of 31 December 2015, 2,261 people who had travelled in mixed maritime movements were in detention facilities in Australia or the offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.