May 19, 2015
By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours
The route has been described as a “ watery graveyard.”
And the images of South Asian migrants held on smuggling boats for weeks at sea show just how harrowing the journey really is: women and children showed sunken cheeks and protruding rib cages, among other signs of severe malnutrition, while men have reportedly been thrown overboard in violent fights over sparse food supplies.
“It’s a long, drawn out form of starvation. You’re not meant to be out to sea for this long,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, head of the International Organization for Migration in Thailand.
Boats filled with primarily Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Bangladeshis have been sitting in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, for more than 40 days.
Most migrants are looking to reach Malaysia, Labovitz said, but after a crackdown on smugglers in Thailand and increased difficulties reaching the coast, many smugglers are now keeping their boats on the water as they look for ways to unload without detection.
As many as 4,000 migrants are believed to still be stranded at sea, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Without immediate help, they risk “large scale suffering and death,” Labovitz told the Star.
“You have people stuck in the middle of this whole process, and you need to figure out where they are and get them on land,” Labovitz said. “I think it’s a game-changer what’s happening now.”
UNHCR reported that more than 88,000 people have made the voyage by sea in Southeast Asia since 2014, including 25,000 who arrived in the first quarter of this year.
About 1,000 people are thought to have died due to the dangerous conditions at sea, while another 1,000 were killed after being mistreated or deprived of essential needs by traffickers, UNHCR said.
The group has called for the Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian governments to send out rescue boats, and allow the migrants to disembark safely.
“Countries really should be sharing the responsibility. They should be rescuing people close to their coast. This is not just a moral obligation, but a legal responsibility under international maritime law,” said Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokesperson based in Thailand.
A boat carrying several hundred migrants arrived in Aceh, in northern Indonesia, on Friday, and human rights groups have tried to provide medical attention to those that disembarked.
UNHCR said almost 1,400 people arrived in Indonesia, 1,107 in Malaysia and 106 in southern Thailand over the last nine days. Another 400 have returned to Burma and Bangladesh, according to IOM.
Tan told the Star that survivors of the journey recounted violent fights over food on one of the boats that reached Indonesia after it was abandoned by its crew and left floating for days.
“They were given some food and water. People started fighting over whatever was left. Some were killed in the fighting . . . some were thrown overboard,” Tan said.
She added that addressing the root causes of migration, including economic under-development and ethnic violence and discrimination in their home countries, is necessary to prevent more disasters.
“Law enforcement is good and cracking down on trafficking networks is all very commendable, but you can’t really resolve the problem unless we deal with the root causes.”