UNHCR: Over 20,000 people risked lives in Indian Ocean in first half of 2014

Briefing Notes, 22 August 2014

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 22 August 2014, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

A new UNHCR report on irregular maritime movements in South East Asia estimates that 20,000 people risked their lives in sea crossings in the first half of this year. Many were Rohingya who fled Myanmar and arrived in the region suffering the effects of malnutrition and abuse during the journey. Several hundred people were also intercepted on boats heading to Australia.

The report has been produced by a newly-established Maritime Movements Monitoring Unit at UNHCR's Regional Office in Bangkok which collates information through direct interviews, and from media reports, partners and governments. It 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 also 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. 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.

These developments take place in the context of a very challenging protection environment for refugees in the region. States including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are not signatory to the 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. It also makes legal employment impossible and drives many people, including women and children, into exploitative and vulnerable situations.

Myanmar/Bangladesh

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 among them 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. Departures were mostly from Teknaf in Bangladesh and Maungdaw in Myanmar, with smaller numbers from Sittwe. 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 who were usually kept in separate quarters.

Most passengers our staff interviewed said they paid between US$50 and US$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 when people tried to move. Some passengers reportedly jumped off boats in desperation. Others went missing when, in one example, they were forced to swim ashore after nearing the coast off Thailand.

Thailand

In Thailand, the survivors of sea journeys said they were packed into pick-up trucks at night, and forced to sit or lie on top of up to 20 other people. They were taken to smugglers' camps in or around hills, jungles or plantations. Hundreds were confined, for up to six months, behind wooden fences with only plastic sheets to sleep on.

Many were unaware that they would need to pay more money, usually US$1,500-US$2,200, to be released. They were made to call relatives in Myanmar, Bangladesh or Malaysia to send money through hard currency, bank transfers or mobile payment systems. Those who could not pay would be beaten and detained for long periods of time.

Survivors of this ordeal told our staff about people dying in these smugglers' camps due to illness or physical injuries. Some lost sensory abilities and mobility from beriberi due to malnutrition, specifically Vitamin B1 deficiency. Three people were effectively paralyzed and abandoned by the smugglers when their camps were raided by the Thai authorities. The camps in question no longer exist, although others are believed to still be running.

As of early July, 233 Rohingya remained in Thai immigration detention centres or shelters. UNHCR is discussing different alternatives to detention with our government counterparts and other stakeholders. In the meantime we are providing the group with material assistance and counselling them on the risks of using smuggling networks. Our staff are also working with the authorities and UNICEF to enable the children to attend local schools after intensive Thai language lessons. Vulnerable individuals, including unaccompanied children, are being given particular attention to meet their specific needs.

Malaysia

In Malaysia, UNHCR has had access to 230 people who arrived directly by boat between January and June, as well as to others who landed by boat in Thailand and made their way across the land border into Malaysia. In total, more than 4,700 Rohingya were registered during this period, including 375 unaccompanied and separated children. By the end of June, more than 38,000 Rohingya had registered with UNHCR Malaysia cumulatively since the late 1990s.

The physical health and protection needs of recent arrivals remain a major concern. In the first half of the year, we saw 144 Rohingya with symptoms of beriberi. UNHCR has provided vitamin supplements for immediate treatment, and is referring cases to healthcare providers. Two Rohingya have died in hospital within a week of approaching UNHCR.

Indonesia

Sixty Rohingya approached UNHCR in Indonesia between January and June a drop of almost 90 per cent compared to the same period last year. By the end of June 2014, there were 951 Rohingya registered with UNHCR, mainly people who arrived in previous years. Most are believed to have arrived by boat from Malaysia, together with other nationalities of arrivals to Indonesia.

Australia

In the first half of the year, nine boats travelling towards Australia with more than 400 people were intercepted by the Australian authorities under the government's Operation Sovereign Borders. Seven boats were returned to Indonesia. One boat with 41 passengers was returned to Sri Lanka following accelerated screening procedures by the government. The 157 people on board another boat that left from India were transferred to Nauru, pending a decision by the Australian High Court on how to process them.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Bangkok, Vivian Tan on mobile +66 818 270 280
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Geneva, Dan McNorton on mobile +41 79 217 3011

The report "South-East Asia: Irregular Maritime Movements January-June 2014" is available at www.unhcr.org/53f1c5fc9.html

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