On 24 May 2022, at least 17 Rohingya refugees were killed after their boat capsized in bad weather off the Myanmar coast. Children drowned. The victims were among some 90 Rohingya on board who were attempting to leave Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine state in Myanmar – for Malaysia. The number of journeys had fallen significantly early in the COVID-19 pandemic but have resumed in recent months, and these deaths are a tragic justification of increasing concerns for those taking the sea journey to Malaysia.
Observers fear that countries including Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are taking harsher measures to cope with the “irregular” movements of people. Hundreds of Rohingya have been intercepted in Myanmar and Bangladesh while many others have been arrested elsewhere en route to Malaysia. These events, despite happening on a smaller scale, mirror the movements and responses around the Andaman Sea crisis of 2015 as authorities continue criminalizing refugees and the seeking of protection from persecution.
Mixed movements resumed from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia
According to UNODC, more than 900 Rohingya have attempted to reach Malaysia since December, exceeding the number from the same period last year (633, according to UNHCR). Smugglers in Bangladesh and Myanmar usually facilitate the journeys, which can include both land border crossings and maritime movements. Refugees are exposed to fatal risks during those journeys, especially women and children. According to a source quoted by Radio Free Asia, “about 35 out of 100 people make it”. The rest are either arrested or lose their lives. From December 2021 to date, more than 600 Rohingya have been arrested on the journey to Malaysia, and according to UNODC at least 65 reported dead or missing.
Unlike maritime movements during 2020-2021, which were made up of Rohingya only, recent boats from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia consist of Rohingya, other Myanmar nationals, and Bangladeshis. A boat captured by the Malaysian authorities in Kuala Kurau on 1 May 2022, for example, held 143 people, including 134 Rohingya, four Bangladeshi nationals, and five Myanmar nationals. This kind of mixed movement, despite being on a much smaller scale, also mirrors the movements in the Andaman Sea seven years ago, when as many as 8,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants were left stranded at sea after being refused disembarkation by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Anti-refugee rhetoric continues to offset regional protection frameworks
Compared with seven years ago, regional frameworks to protect refugees and migrants have improved. The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime provides a platform for collaboration on the establishment of disembarkation options and cooperation in search and rescue efforts. ASEAN has also provided various frameworks to strengthen protection for migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, especially women and children.
However, the regional frameworks have yet been able to energize member states to protect the rights of people on the move, and changes in national immigration policy have been limited. Australia reaffirmed the continuation of its “turning back boats” policy despite the electoral victory of the Labour Party in May 2022. Thailand continues its view of refugees as “illegal” migrants, while every country on the route remains a non-signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, shying away from any responsibilities toward refugees.
Furthermore, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric have been on the rise. In Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar, reports on Rohingya refugees being arrested and detained have proliferated, using dehumanizing and inaccurate language – such as “illegal migrants”, “criminal tendencies”, and “nabbing”. These reports have stoked public opposition to migrants and refugees. At the same time, countries like Malaysia and Thailand have increased immigration raids, resulting in the arrest and deportation of refugees, including those with UNHCR-issued refugee cards: an act in violation of international law.
What lessons from the Andaman Sea crisis are still applied to today’s responses?
The Andaman Sea crisis in 2015 demonstrates the complexity of mixed movements as well as the responses required. Boats traveling to Malaysia are carrying people who have different legal statuses and who are departing for a variety of reasons. Regardless of these differences, people in mixed movements are exposed to the same protection risks and violations on the journey. These risks are only heightened in the absence of a comprehensive legal protection framework in transit and destination countries.
These movements of Rohingya refugees also prove that without proper attention to conditions for Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, movement is inevitable, as they seek to avoid humanitarian and migration crises. In Myanmar, ten years after the launch of the ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya population, the condition of people held in the Rohingya displacement camp in Sittwe remains critical, with debt, lack of employment, and a generation of education-less children damaging Rohingya communities. In Bangladesh, movements in Cox’s Bazar have been increasingly restricted. Since May 2022, the local police have introduced a new “camp-to-camp movement pass”, which is required for Rohingya to visit other camps. Those who travel without the pass are reportedly detained and beaten. Additionally, three months after shutting down thousands of shops owned by refugees, in April 2022 Bangladesh authorities detained more than 300 Rohingya for working outside their refugee camps. Given the dim prospects of repatriation and resettlement, and worsening conditions in Bangladesh, moving onwards is the only option for many.
How can the region respond better this time?
In a statement on 23 May, UNHCR warned that “collective failure to act will continue to lead to tragic and fatal consequences” for those at sea, citing the deaths of the 17 Rohingya. The warning is ominous, pointing directly at predictable and amendable failures in protection response, while adding that Rohingya refugees will continue to embark on dangerous journeys in search of safety and stability, and in increasing numbers. Although the overall number of Rohingya attempting to reach Malaysia from Myanmar and Bangladesh over the past few months remains significantly lower than in May 2015, the situation is volatile and can change quickly at any time.
Given the drivers of onward movement, increasing border controls and criminalizing refugees will increase the risks of the journey, more than it will stop people from moving. Countries on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea must cooperate to conduct search and rescue operations to save lives. Refugees who flee persecution and catastrophic conditions in Myanmar and Bangladesh should be allowed to disembark and provided with adequate assistance. States in the region should urgently agree on collective solutions to address the issue and better share responsibility for hosting refugees.