Why you should care
Because the Med isn’t the only deadly path.
Huddled together in rickety boats, the masses fear for their lives as they embark on perilous journeys. These refugees aren’t likely to drown, die in stormy seas or be eaten by sharks — although that’s all possible. But for these unfortunate people, it’s more likely to be the beatings, cramped conditions (they’re stuffed in holds designed for 20) and disease that kill them. Such tales evoke images of African and Syrian refugees fleeing for Europe.
But the refugees and migrants braving maritime crossings in Southeast Asia are three times more likely to die than their Europe-bound counterparts.
According to a recent UNHCR report, roughly 33,600 refugees and migrants — primarily Rohingya and Bangladeshis en route from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia — traveled through the region by sea last year, mostly through the Bay of Bengal. Of these, 370 died before reaching land, falling victim to “starvation, dehydration, disease and abuse,” the report says. This means roughly 1.1 percent of those setting off perished, while in the Med, 3,771 of an estimated 1.4 million died, for a rate of .375 percent, according to U.N. figures.
In Southeast Asia, the main culprit is “abuse by smugglers,” says Keane Shum, head of UNHCR’s regional maritime movement monitoring unit, whether that’s deprivation of food and water or by “being beaten or shot to death on board.” Most of these sea journeys should take about a week, but if the captains hit trouble disembarking — as happened last May — then they can be on the boats for months, Shum explains, noting that journeys can also be slowed by migrants’ inability to pay. Fleeing spiked in the wake of Rakhine State (aka Arakan) violence in 2012, which included conflicts between Rahkine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. But the Rohingya have long faced persecution and now feel they have no choice but to leave, says Frankfurt-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin. “Either they stay there and die, or they take the risky journey to Malaysia or Thailand,” he says. In recent decades, the Rohingya’s rights have been stripped away, to a point now — since the 2012 killings — where they require permission just to move from one parish to another within the same town, Lwin explains, adding that violent raids and rape are not uncommon.
Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Bangkok, agrees that those in the internally displaced camps “don’t see much prospect for improvements.” Authorities have been helping some displaced people to return home, but it’s a small number of them, and more than 100,000 remain in the IDP camps. “We’re hoping this will grow,” Tan says, referring to the improvements. Last year, Shum notes, the number of those making the journeys dropped significantly. “The push factors haven’t changed,” he says, referring to the human-rights issues. But the “means by which they can get out have changed,” he explains, noting how official scrutiny has brought a crackdown on smuggling rings. Also, the Rohingya community is growing increasingly wary of rumored worse conditions in Malaysia, as well as the dangerous Bay of Bengal crossings.
Many may also be taking a “wait and see” approach, says Tan, regarding what the new government of Myanmar might do for the Rohingya. For now, thousands remain trapped, deprived of legal status, and their routes to freedom are downright deadly and increasingly being blocked.