ABANDONED AT SEA: THE DESPERATE JOURNEYS OF ROHINGYA REFUGEES
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Since January 2020, about 2,400 Rohingya have fled ongoing persecution and poverty in Myanmar and Bangladesh, embarking on desperate journeys across the open seas. They board rickety vessels ill-equipped for the perilous voyage, hoping to reach other countries in neighbouring Southeast Asia.
Many do not make it there.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2020, roughly one in every 12 Rohingya attempting the sea voyage has perished in the murky waters where the Andaman Sea meets the Bay of Bengal.
In search of refuge
Years of alienation, discrimination, and conflict within their homeland have pushed the Rohingya to the margins. They continue to suffer severe limitations on basic human rights, such as access to education and even healthcare and sanitation.
Stateless, with few options
Without a state to protect them and the rights that come with citizenship, the Rohingya are denied things that others take for granted, such as a proof of identity like a passport, moving freely within their own country, and other basic necessities. This limits their ability to travel and settle safely. Many have no choice but to journey undocumented, overland or by boat, to neighbouring countries.
They end up in refugee camps
Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar in several waves of displacement since the early 1970s. More recently, fleeing widespread violence in 2016 and 2017, many have poured across the border into Bangladesh. There, they seek refuge in overcrowded and run-down camps. Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is the world’s largest, with close to 900,000 people living in harsh, cramped conditions.
Victims of human trafficking
Most Rohingya who fled by sea in 2020 left from Cox’s Bazar. Often faced with no choice but to flee the squalid conditions in the camps, Rohingya refugees rely on the services of unscrupulous smugglers and can fall into the hands of human traffickers. These criminal groups have taken advantage of the crisis, reviving once dormant clandestine routes, including maritime passages in the Andaman sea. Refugees sold their homes, land, and other possessions to pay smugglers between US$1,700 and US$6,000 to take them across the sea. Some are left in crippling debt after taking huge loans to make the journey.
A deadly voyage
Leaving from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border, most refugee vessels head southeast towards Thailand or Malaysia. These journeys are dangerous and sometimes deadly.
Modern slavery, alive at sea
These boats have been likened to modern slave ships. Refugees sit packed together like sardines, with no space to stretch or sleep. They are beaten, even stabbed with knives, if they ask for water or more than their one or two handfuls of rice per day. Fights erupt over dwindling supplies. The bodies of those who perish are thrown overboard.
On 7 September, 2020, close to 300 Rohingya refugees came ashore in Aceh, Indonesia, after an estimated seven months at sea. One of the biggest arrivals since the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, the group also spent the longest time at sea among the boats that departed this year. They had been bound for Malaysia.
Tragedy repeats itself
When refugees set out by boat, they do not know if they will make it through the journey. Many fall victim to disease, abuse, starvation, and dehydration. Their bodies are thrown overboard.
Refugees who met their death on land usually were held captive in camps run by smugglers and traffickers, where they were kept as hostages for ransom. If their families are unable to pay off the debts incurred during the journey, the refugees are tortured, killed, or released only to be further exploited in the illegal labour or sex industry, because of the money they owed their smugglers.
After authorities unearthed mass graves at a human trafficking camp close to the Thai-Malaysian border in 2015, Thailand cracked down on the illegal networks smuggling Rohingya refugees throughout the region.
But this led to another crisis. Unable to unload at their usual destinations, smugglers and traffickers abandoned boatloads of refugees in the open sea. UNHCR reported that year that as many as 5, 000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis had been left stranded in the Andaman Sea as their access to food, water, and sanitation dwindled.
Five years later, a similar tragedy is unfolding on the stretch of water between the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
What happens to Rohingya refugees after they embark on the sea journey?
Outcomes from departure to destination (2018-2020)
A game of human ping-pong
In the first six months of 2020, at least 500 people were stranded at sea after countries in Southeast Asia failed to take action to allow them to disembark, with some countries intercepting and pushing refugee boats back out to international waters.
Despite their extreme distress—they faced a shortage of food and water, physical and sexual abuse, and rough weather conditions at sea—these refugees were denied access to life-saving assistance.
Where passengers were allowed to disembark, the overwhelming majority were detained in camps or quarantine centers. Refugees who were returned to Bangladesh after other countries had closed their borders were sent to a remote island, Bhasan Char, where they remain confined.
The impact of detention on children is significant, especially as they make up 36 percent of survivors from recorded maritime incidents in 2020. Children who travel unaccompanied face a higher risk of mistreatment in custody and receive little assistance. Psychologists have noted that detaining refugee and asylum-seeking children takes a severe toll on their mental health and may even affect their cognitive development.
How much time did refugees spend at sea?
Type of incident
The longer at sea, the deadlier their fate
UNHCR has made clear that interception and pushback practices by authorities directly or indirectly result in death or refoulement—the forced return of refugees back home to face persecution. Under the law of the sea, states have a duty to render assistance to those in distress at sea. Rescue missions, and safe and timely disembarkation of boats in distress is critical to preventing the loss of refugee lives.
That said, many refugees have beaten the odds and moved onwards to their destinations. Hundreds of thousands are scattered across Southeast Asia, whose porous borders make it hard to manage the flow of refugees and migrants entering the country, a situation smugglers and human traffickers take full advantage of.
Although Rohingya refugees flee persecution and seek protection, they may be treated as irregular migrants in countries with no asylum system or national refugee legislation and subject to arrest and deportation. Rohingya refugees are thus often reluctant to seek help from authorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the insecurities that refugees without legal status experience in their host countries. National measures to limit the spread of the virus have led to large-scale raids on refugee-populated neighborhoods and mass detention of undocumented migrants.
Still at the margins of society
As a stateless people, Rohingya refugees are almost always unable to obtain the paperwork required to legally enter another country. Desperately seeking safety, they are left with no recourse but to travel to other countries without proper documentation. Upon arrival as undocumented persons, they find themselves unable to access education, employment, or proper healthcare in the countries they take refuge in.
Sold for sex
Refugee women and girls can end up abused and exploited in the local sex trade. Some become child brides. Many who travel to their destination countries to marry Rohingya men, who paid to smuggle them, reportedly end up living in slavery-like conditions, not unlike what they experience on the boats.
Is Southeast Asia protecting refugees?
Irrespective of the international treaties they have ratified (or not), countries in Southeast Asia are bound by customary international law. This obligates states to render assistance to persons in distress at sea and protect refugees and asylum-seekers from refoulement. That said, the implementation of these laws is still left to the will of national governments.
Refugee rights in ASEAN
International and domestic frameworks alone—where they are present—are not enough to protect the rights of refugees. Without protection from arbitrary detention and refoulement, Rohingya refugees lie anxiously in wait of arrest or deportation from their host country. And with no access to legal employment, they struggle to make ends meet with informal, low-paying jobs. Refugees and other undocumented migrants are deprived of access to basic education or healthcare, lacking the means to earn a stable income.
Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only Cambodia and the Philippines are signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Despite regional frameworks to protect the rights of refugees, victims fleeing religious or political violence in neighbouring countries face a severe lack of formal protection. Human rights experts also note that domestic frameworks on refugee protection have often failed to meet international human rights standards.
However, many ASEAN countries do host refugees within their territory, even if they are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. These countries work with UNHCR to provide temporary protection.
In 2016, Indonesia signed Presidential Regulation No 125 on the treatment of asylum seekers, a piece of legislation triggered by the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis. With this, the duty to rescue refugees stranded in Indonesian waters and pursue alternatives to detention for refugees and asylum seekers are enshrined in Indonesian law.
Similarly, Thailand introduced the National Screening Mechanism (NSM) in 2019. While not a full-fledged asylum system, it has the potential to grant some measure of international protection to persons in need of it.
COVID-19 has made it worse for refugees
Rohingya refugees have been persecuted and forced into terrible conditions for decades. Still, 2020 has been exceptionally difficult for the thousands seeking a way out of their circumstances. As COVID-19 paralysed economies, upended societies, and sent fear rippling through every aspect of daily life, countries have closed their doors on refugees at their borders.
Earlier this year, boats carrying Rohingya passengers were left adrift at sea as regional governments strove to contain the spread of the virus. Border management measures saw authorities turning away boats in distress, risking the lives of those on board.
Refugees who cannot disembark often face more precarious situations—they are forced to return to where they came from or attempt to disembark in secret. Such covert landings can hinder national health and security efforts, as persons who arrive clandestinely are more likely to bypass health screening and quarantine measures.
What needs to be done?
As UNHCR states, beating the pandemic should not come at the cost of denying Rohingya access to international protection. As long as refugees are not protected and given opportunities for asylum, they will be the target of unscrupulous smugglers and human traffickers who exploit and profit from people’s vulnerabilities. Human rights groups have appealed to states to scale up search and rescue missions and provide humanitarian assistance to refugees found at sea.
When a 17-year-old Rohingya child is allowed to study and work, that child gets a shot at leading a normal life. Most Rohingya who cross borders endure unspeakable tragedy and hardship for this very chance at a different life—one without the crippling fear of persecution, poverty, or violence back home.
Without a lasting solution, the Rohingya will remain vulnerable to state coercion and exploitation wherever they go. This is why refugees require stronger protection, commitment, and solidarity from nations in the region.
When people who fear for their lives cross a border, they become the shared responsibility of both their home and host countries. The sooner we embrace this, the closer we get to creating a safer world for the Rohingya and other refugee populations.
How can you help?
Have conversations at home, in school or at work about the issues affecting refugees.
Volunteer with the United Nations or with a refugee organisation near you. You could offer your skills to teach refugees a language, craft, or sport.
Help refugees get work. Hire a refugee, support a refugee-owned business or offer training or volunteer opportunities to refugees.
Become a supporter and advocate! Join a campaign that raises awareness about refugee issues and shows solidarity.
Help refugees integrate. Show them your hometown, invite them to activities like watching football together or having dinner.
Donate. It might not feel very hands-on to you, but your donation will make a huge difference in the life of a refugee.
“Myanmar is my native land, I was born there and I love it very much. If we could live there peacefully, then I would prefer living in my own country.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.