Nearly 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers sailed the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea between January 2018 and June 2019, UNHCR said in a report Tuesday, noting that the journeys resumed after a two-year lapse but have become more deadly than in previous years.
The number of those sailing from Bangladesh or Myanmar, often heading toward Malaysia, fell drastically from the figures recorded between 2013 and 2015 when 50 times as many people traveled similar routes, according to the report published by the U.N. refugee agency.
Members of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority “remained the largest refugee group on the move” in Southeast Asia, UNHCR noted.
It also estimated that one person in 69 who embarked on a maritime journey in 2018 died or went missing at sea during that 18-month period, compared with a fatality rate of one in 81 in 2013-2015.
“In previous years, smugglers were to blame for the majority of those deaths due to beating, gunshot wounds or deprivation of food and water,” said the 20-page report issued in Bangkok. “Since 2018, the most common reason for death or disappearance at sea was boats in distress.”
Far more women and children, by percentage, are taking the risky journeys, the report said. Up to 2015, most of the travelers were men, compared with 59 percent women and children since 2018.
The boats that refugees and asylum sailed in between January 2018 and June 2019 were considerably smaller than in the past, the report said.
“The modus operandi of maritime movements has evolved compared to 2015, when cargo boats or large fishing trawlers organized by smugglers were transporting between 300 and 1,000 people in one trip. In 2018, refugees and migrants often relied on small fishing boats, bought directly from a local fisherman, with the capacity to transport between 20 and 100 persons each,” it said.
This year, professional smugglers have returned to using boats that can carry up to 200 people each trip, forcing refugees to pay between $1,700 and $6,000 depending on the destination and the boat involved, UNHCR said.
“We spent 12 days [at sea] waiting for the boat to fill up, then we started to sail. We did not get enough food or water, so we were hungry and thirsty. When we approached the smugglers to give us more food, they beat us with iron rods,” a Rohingya boy said of his trip, according to the U.N. report.
While not including details about what caused the two-year hiatus in maritime migrations, the report began by noting: “Four years after the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, refugees in Southeast Asia continue to risk their lives, albeit in smaller numbers, to reach safety in hope of securing a better future.”
In May 2015, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants came ashore in Southeast Asian countries after being abandoned at sea in human smuggling boats, which had sailed across the Andaman Sea from the Bay of Bengal.
On May 26, 2015, the International Organization for Migration made an appeal seeking millions of dollars to aid people “affected by the migrant crisis in the Andaman Sea.”
“Over the past three weeks, thousands of victims of people smuggling have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, after horrific voyages of up to four months. Thousands more refugees, stateless people and economic migrants are believed to be still at sea. Those who have landed tell harrowing tales of overcrowding, beatings and a chronic lack of food and water, which in some cases resulted in extreme violence,” the appeal stated.
The appeal also noted the recent discoveries of graves of migrants in smuggling camps along the border between Thailand and Malaysia.
Thai authorities convicted 62 people, including a former three-star army general on charges linked to human trafficking tied to the graves.
Earlier this year, a Malaysian Royal Commission of Inquiry finished hearing 17 days of testimony about the graves and was preparing a report on its findings.
Rohingya, Bangladesh men set sail
Since 2018, many of the migrants who set sail were Rohingya seeking to escape persecution by Myanmar or those who were trying to leave refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh. Joining them were a small number of Bangladesh men searching for better economic opportunities, UNHCR reported.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following an outbreak of violence and a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military and security forces in Rakhine state in August 2017.
In Bangladesh in recent weeks, military and government officials have discussed plans and are awaiting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s approval to string barbed wire around 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district in order to stop some 1.1 million refugees from fleeing.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch called on Dhaka to halt the plan to fence in Rohingya, saying it violates the Rohingya’s rights to freedom of movement.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened Bangladesh’s borders to Rohingya refugees fleeing mass atrocities in Myanmar, but she now seems intent on turning the camps into essentially open air prisons,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a news release.
“By cutting the refugees off from the outside world, the Bangladesh government risks squandering the global goodwill it had earned.”