The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands of migrants stranded at sea as Southeast Asian nations turn back smuggling ships

Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia’s Aceh Province on May 11. (Roni Bintang/Reuters)

Mizanur Rahman survived two months crammed on a boat with 600 other migrants. He survived while other passengers died of sickness or hunger (the refugees were given just a plate of rice per day). And when the traffickers controlling the boat told passengers that they must “swim to shore if we wanted to stay alive,” the 14-year-old survived that, too, he told Agence France-Presse.

Rahman’s sounds like a story out of Europe, where an escalating migrant crisis has made headlines and sparked international debates about how to prevent thousands of refugees from losing their lives in the dangerous journey by sea. But Rahman was actually trying to reach Malaysia, where he “dreamed of a better future” than his impoverished community in Bangladesh could provide, he told AFP.

He is one of more than 25,000 migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing of the Bay of Bengal this year — a maritime drama that in many ways mirrors what is happening in the Mediterranean. Like their counterparts half a world away, refugees from countries like Bangladesh and Burma are fleeing poverty, conflict and persecution. But the new arrivals are often rebuffed by governments at their destinations — Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia — which have been turning back boats filled with hundreds of refugees.

“What do you expect us to do? We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this,” Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar told the Associated Press.

That leaves anywhere between 6,000 and 20,000 migrants stranded on the open sea, according to Chris Lewa, a refugee rights advocate who is tracking the crisis.

Lewa has been communicating with passengers on a boat anchored somewhere between southern Thailand and northern Malaysia, she told the New York Times. The captain and crew of the boat fled earlier this week — frightened by harsh anti-trafficking measures at their destination — leaving 350 passengers stranded without food.

“You can’t just let these people die at sea,” she said, calling on Malaysian authorities to rescue the boat. The International Organization for Migration has likewise called for a search-and-rescue mission to track down abandoned ships.

More than 1,500 refugees have come ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia this week, the Times reported, and both countries have now vowed to turn away all new arrivals. On Tuesday, the Indonesia navy turned back a ship carrying thousands of passengers, providing it with fuel and some food and then sending it toward Malaysia, where it will almost certainly be given the same treatment.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, compared that policy to “a three-way game of human ping pong.” He told the Associated Press that Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have worsened the migrant crisis “with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of boat people that puts thousands of lives at risk.”

It’s a risk that many migrants seem willing to take. A recent report from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees estimates that 25,000 people attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal between January and March 2015 — roughly the same number that arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean during that period. Of these, about 300 people are believed to have died during the crossing. (The U.N. report notes stories about whole ships sinking but does not include them in its tally as they are impossible to verify.)

“After everything that happened to us, I would now prefer to die here rather than go back home,” Rahman, the 14-year-old Bangladeshi migrant, told AFP.

About half of those crossing the Bay of Bengal are members of the Rohingya ethnic group, a Muslim minority in Burma that is denied citizenship by the government. Amnesty International calls them “the most persecuted refugees in the world.” An estimated 86,000 Rohingya have fled Burma (also called Myanmar) since 2012, when long-simmering conflict between them and other groups erupted into violence. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were forced into dismal camps that rights organizations compared to “outdoor jails.” The rest turned to traffickers, desperately seeking a way out.

Until recently, most smuggling routes stopped first in Thailand. There, migrants would be held in camps deep in the forest until they could be ferried further south to Malaysia or Indonesia. Sometimes the refugees would be imprisoned for months while traffickers waited for their relatives to pay a smuggling fee. Recently uncovered mass graves at abandoned camps attest that the wait could often be deadly.

The Thai government has recently cracked down on human trafficking. In January, authorities announced that more than a dozen officials were being prosecuted for participating in or turning a blind eye to smuggling in the country, according to AFP.

But refugee advocates say that traffickers are responding by simply switching their tactics.

“We fear there may be thousands stuck at sea because they can’t disembark. The camps have effectively been transferred from the jungle to international waters,” Lewa told AFP.

While rights advocates criticized Malaysia and other countries for rebuffing these refugees, Wan Junaidi of Malaysia’s Home Ministry told the AP that the focus ought to be on “source countries” that drive their citizens to leave.

“You talk about democracy but don’t treat your citizens like trash, like criminals until they need to run away to our country,” he said of Burma.

Southeast Asia’s fraught politics make the situation particularly difficult to manage. Burma has rejected multilateral talks on the issue, according to the New York Times, and experts say that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has no mechanism for coping with the influx migrants. Each country must deal with new arrivals on their own — and lately, they’re doing so by not allowing anyone to arrive.

“It’s a very clear humanitarian issue — you need to rescue these people — but you have political complications and economic complications,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government adviser and security expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told the New York Times.

Questions about refugees’ reasons for leaving complicate things further. The UNHCR asks countries not to turn back “irregular” migrants who face persecution in their home countries — as rights groups say the Rohingya do. But others among the boat people are economic refugees, who aren’t guaranteed the same international protections. Countries are obligated to protect refugees fleeing persecution, not those escaping poverty, but in the case of Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants, it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two.

Meanwhile, Burma argues that the Rohingya aren’t Southeast Asian at all — it considers members of the Muslim minority group illegal settlers from Bangladesh, even though most have been in the country since the 19th century or earlier.

Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a former Thai representative to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, told the Times that immigration issues in the region often get swept under the rug because they are so contentious.

In Europe “they can discuss it openly, not like us,” she said.

She says that Southeast Asian nations must develop a system for aiding the influx of refugees, regardless of their background.

“To me, as a human rights worker, it doesn’t matter where they are from,” she said. “They are now in our territory. They are entitled to our protection.”