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UNHCR calls for safer alternatives to deadly Bay of Bengal voyages

Briefing notes

UNHCR calls for safer alternatives to deadly Bay of Bengal voyages

23 February 2016

A new UNHCR report has found that mixed maritime movements in South-East Asia were three times more deadly than in the Mediterranean last year - highlighting the urgency of greater life-saving cooperation among the affected States.

The latest Mixed Maritime Movements in South-East Asia report provides key numbers and trends for movements in the Indian Ocean in 2015. Across the region an estimated 33,600 refugees and migrants of various nationalities took to smugglers' boats, including 32,600 in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, some 700 across the Straits of Malacca and over 200 who were intercepted en route to Australia.

The bulk of the passengers were Rohingya and Bangladesh nationals in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The numbers tell a tale of two seasons -- the first half of 2015 saw the highest-ever estimates of departures (31,000), while the second half of the year (with some 1,600 departures) was much quieter than in previous years. Combined, the full-year departures in the Bay of Bengal were just over half of the record-setting previous year.

This decrease can be attributed to a number of factors, including the discovery of mass graves along the Thailand-Malaysia land border with the remains of over 200 presumed earlier arrivals, government crackdowns on smuggling networks and scrutiny of traditional departure and arrival points. This caused smugglers to abandon their passengers at sea, leading to a highly-publicized "maritime ping pong" of boats that ended with the rescue and disembarkation of thousands of people, and their subsequent and continued detention in some host countries. The monsoon season followed, which always reduces sailings.

Despite the lower numbers, the 2015 fatality rate was still three times higher in these waters than in the Mediterranean Sea. Some 370 people are believed to have died in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea during the year - not from drowning but from mistreatment and disease brought about by smugglers who abused and in many cases killed passengers with impunity. The toll also includes those killed in a fight over diminishing supplies on a boat that had been prevented from landing on two occasions. Some of these deaths could have been prevented with prompt disembarkation.

Elsewhere in the region, based on media reports, 263 people on nine boats tried to reach Australia and New Zealand in 2015. Departing from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam, these boats carrying passengers from Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam were ultimately prevented from reaching Australia by Australian and Indonesian authorities.

UNHCR believes that unless the root causes of displacement are addressed, people will continue risking their lives on smugglers' boats to seek safety and stability elsewhere.

In 2015 governments in the region indicated an intention to tackle this regional challenge through a number of high-level meetings. There remains an urgent need for affected States to take concrete action to coordinate procedures for rescue at sea, predictable places to disembark passengers safely, as well as adequate reception and screening systems on arrival. People who fled their homes and cannot return due to an absence of protection should be granted temporary refuge and have access to basic rights and services while longer-term solutions are sought.

To minimize deaths at sea, safe and legal channels including labour migration and family reunification programs must be opened up for people leaving difficult conditions at home. UNHCR hopes that labour migration arrangements could also be put in place for the Rohingya already in labour-importing countries, enabling them to contribute to the economies of their host and home countries.

Next month's Bali Process Ministerial Meeting will be a timely opportunity to make progress on these issues.

Root causes need to be addressed concurrently. A lifting of existing restrictions on freedom of movement and access to services throughout Rakhine State in Myanmar would allow thousands of people to live more normal lives and be less likely to risk dangerous sea journeys.

UNHCR is also watching with interest the Bangladesh government's plans to list hundreds of thousands of undocumented Rohingya in south-eastern Bangladesh. We hope that the exercise will result in improved documentation and access to services.

Nearly 170,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis are estimated to have made the dangerous journey from the Bay of Bengal since 2012. Some of their stories are told in this special feature

Report on Atavist

For more information on this topic, please contact:

In Geneva, Andreas Needham on mobile +41 79 217 3140