Seeking Safe Harbour: Three-region comparative analysis of protection at sea

With so much media and policy focus on the plight of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, the situation of maritime irregular migration (forced and voluntary) in other regions is often overlooked. A comparative analysis of sea crossings by migrants in the Mediterranean; the Gulf of Aden / Red Sea and the Bay of Bengal / Andaman Sea along with an overview of the different provisions for migrants in terms of protection at sea reveals some important trends and considerable inconsistencies across regions.

In this indicative analysis the Mediterranean focus divides the situation between the Central Mediterranean route (normally arriving in Italy, sometimes Malta) and the Eastern Mediterranean route (normally arriving in Greece). The matrix (see below) used to inform this article is based on available data in mid-November 2015 and the following section highlights some of the key differences but is not designed to offer an exhaustive analysis of individual aspects or case studies:

Mixed Migration dominates the flows:

In all regions the use of the analytical lens of mixed migration and the term itself is relevant. People on the move are a mixture of those forced by conflict, fear of conflict or persecution and oppressive regimes as well as those seeking better options in terms of jobs, public services, freedom of expression and better education. But even within these categories, people have mixed motives for choosing their final destinations.

Concerning those from refugee producing countries, many are practicing onward movement from countries where they found refuge from war or persecution but offered little else in terms of economic opportunities, education, stability etc. This is especially true of Syrians in the Middle East, Eritreans in Sudan and Ethiopia or Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Concerning so-called economic migrants, many of those from non-refugee producing countries such as Pakistan, Mali, or Nigeria may have individual stories that include fear of insecurity or violent loss of a close relative in localized sectorial conflict.

Recent trends in terms of rising numbers:

In recent modern history, global displacement levels have never been as high as they are today. In terms of internally displaced people, irregular migration and refugees, those displaced and on the move, or wanting to move the numbers are unprecedented. Not surprisingly the three regions are witnessing increases in displacement and movement even if specific policies and contexts create temporary obstruction forcing people to find alternatives or delay their movement.

As some doors open others close. For example Germany’s welcoming of refugees in early to mid-2015 precipitated a mass influx of migrants towards Europe that continues. Meanwhile in Asia the ‘no boats’ policy of Australia has meant many more Bangladeshis and Rohingyas are trying to get to Thailand and Malaysia but at the same time the restrictive policies of countries in the Andaman Sea area create obstacles. Similarly, the war in Yemen is forcing a reverse flow of movement from Yemen to mainland Africa while Ethiopians still travel irregularly into Yemen with a view to finding work in Saudi Arabia. The indications are that in all regions the demand to move is higher than the ability and possibility to move.

Difference of distance / similarity of means:

In the different regions the variation in distance travelled by sea is considerable. The shortest distance is travelled by those travelling from mainland Turkey to Greek territory – sometimes as little as 4 km. By contrast those leaving from Myanmar and Bangladesh through the Bay of Bengal travel a minimum of 1800 km. However, the means of movement remains similar across all regions. Apart from the use of vessels (from rubber dinghies to dhows and large metal hulled fishing boats) for the sea passage, the typical means of movement for irregular migrants includes covering considerable distances in remote areas (jungles, mountains and deserts) by foot as well as use of pick-ups, lorries, containers and in some cases public transport. The sea journey alone is rarely the only aspect of the migrants’ or refugees’ journey. Often the non-sea aspects of their travel are more dangerous to them.

Smugglers dominate the flows:

Following powerful dynamics of demand and supply, in all regions smugglers dominate facilitation, organization and profiteering from displacement and sea-transport. This lucrative and illicit economy appears to have low risk and high profit margins and appears be attracting more smugglers and in some case traffickers in every region. Where there are not enough or no legal channels for people to move (as asylum seekers or potential labour migrants), the smugglers are meeting the demand. Unregulated and with high level of impunity smuggling (and trafficking) thrive, often with the collusion of certain corrupt state officials. In most cases their ‘clients’ achieve their objectives through their use of smugglers and therefore the smuggler model for sea and land movement persists and can be expected to grow.

Vulnerabilities and conditions:

In all regions the level of vulnerability facing those on the move is high. Not only in terms of the possibility of death at sea through neglect, overcrowding, poorly equipped and unseaworthy vessels but also in the land routes before and after the sea crossings migrants face different vulnerabilities and abuses. Typically these include robbery, violence, sexual violence, kidnapping for ransom, trafficking for exploitation, and neglect causing hardship and death from starvation, thirst, severe confinement, road accidents, abandonment, arbitrary detention, deportation and refoulement. Additionally they may face exposure to elements in hostile natural environments and denial of basic rights in terms of ability to apply for asylum and criminal prosecution.

Lethality: risk of death at sea:

Death at sea has been widely publicized in the world media and by specialist agencies and governments. However, while the absolute numbers of those who die at sea are unacceptably high and tragic the proportions of those who face death at sea are relatively low. If calculated according to proportion of those on the move, the lethality per centage varies considerably across regions with the Central Mediterranean crossing being the worst at 2% and the Eastern Mediterranean crossing being the least lethal at 0.08% (in 2015). Meanwhile crossing the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea in 2014 resulted in 0.3% deaths (capsize and boatwrecks) while those dying in the Andaman sea is estimated during 2014 and 2015 to be 1.2% – mainly from abuse, starvation and thirst, not drowning.

Interestingly, if the calculation takes into account the number of people making the sea journey as well as the distance travelled (person/km averages) the most dangerous crossing then becomes the Eastern Mediterranean route, with the Andaman Sea route being the least dangerous to migrants. For a historical comparison, the estimated lethality rate when Vietnamese ‘boat people’ fled between 1979-1989 was 10%.

While these calculations may be controversial in terms of seeming to underplay the danger to migrants (unintended) they do shed some light on the risk assessment calculations made by migrants as part of their decision-making process that results in continued movement, despite dangers at sea.

Protection at sea:

The greatest differences between regions as highlighted in this matrix appear to relate to protection at sea. The level of protection offered in the Mediterranean in 2014 and increasingly in 2015 is in stark contrast to that offered in the Gulf of Aden / Red Sea where it is nonexistent, and the Andaman Sea where it is even worse and at time could be described at times to be negligent or aggressive. The extent to which nations are signatories to international conventions and their adherence to normative global protection at sea principles play an important part in relative practices of protection at sea.

Reception at destination countries:

Again, in terms of reception of migrants and refugees in destination countries immediately following sea passage, considerable differences across regions are found. In the Mediterranean there are high levels of support and protection offered in most cases (even if currently overwhelmed by numbers and despite a degree of policy confusion), with shelter, food, screening and processing and in many cases free movement permitted. For those crossing the Gulf of Aden facilities are mixed with those arriving in Yemen offered far less than those coming to mainland Africa (in 2015). Those crossing the Andaman Sea face strict law enforcement and detention with limited access to international agencies, often reflecting national policies that continue to be very resistant to irregular arrival of maritime migrants.

The matrix: A schematic overview highlighting main differences between regions

Indicative Matrix

Central Mediterranean


Eastern Mediterranean

Gulf of Aden / Red Sea

Bay of Bengal / Andaman Sea

Who is crossing / migrant profile

Syrians, Sub-Saharan Africans, many West Africans (Gambia/Nigeria) and Eritreans

Overwhelmingly Syrian with large minorities from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Serbia

Ethiopian (80%) Somali (20%)

Rohingya and Bangladeshi

Recent numbers

143,000 (2015)

689,700 (2015)

82,000 (in 2014) 59,000 est. in 2015

94,000 (in 2014/15)

Numbers in larger context

To date 2015 figures of Mediterranean crossings (combined) four times as many as 2014 figures.

Sub-Saharan population 100 million now, expected 3.4 billion in 2100. Studies show high % of people want to come to Europe.

Approx. 4 million Syrian refugees in region. Over 7 million displaced inside Syria. New multi-nation bombing in Syria. causing more displacement.

Pakistan population is 190 million. Afghan population 32 million.2.8 million displaced Iraqis. ISIS causing high displacement in the Middle East region. Little sign of ending soon.

Ethiopian population over 95 million. Already 300,000 crossed to Yemen for KSA in last 4 years. Of 9 million Somalis, 1 million displaced in region. Over 250,000 in Yemen. Somali conflict over 23 years old.

Since early 2015 flows from Yemen to mainland Africa total over 76,000.

Rohingya: Estimated 1 mil in Myanmar including approx. 140,000 in IDP camps. 200,000 to 500,000 in Bangladesh border area.


Bangladesh: 164 million population

Malaysia took 500,000 Bangladesh regularmigrants in both 2014 and 2013.

Malaysia big magnet for whole region.

Current movements of concern started when?

To some extent for last decade or longer but main rise since 2011 and especially in 2014 / 2015

Main movement from 2014

For more than two decades and especially since 2005 but rapid rise from 2011 onwards. Flows from Yemen since March 2015.

2012 communal violence / displacement / continued oppression saw big rise in numbers. 2014/15 largest numbers

Major drivers

Poverty, (WA), predatory governments, oppression (conscription) in Eritrea, some conflict (Somali)

Conflict (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan), hopelessness for refugees in ME region, opportunism and poverty, governance, weak social models (Balkans, Pak, Afghan)

Economic factors, conflict

Oppression and economic factors

Why now / recently?

Other routes closed, Libya in turmoil, opportunity, size of diaspora, rescue at sea, organized smugglers, policy confusion in EU, Eritreans have high asylum acceptance.

Devastation in Syria continues and refugee support in region low, open door policy in some European countries = massive pull factor, policy confusion in EU, high asylum acceptance for certain groups.

Conflict in Yemen, conflict in Somali, overpopulation / poverty in Ethiopia, opportunities in KSA (and Yemen), refugee options for Somalis in particular.

Inter-communal violence and continued displacement, increased oppression, hopelessness, statelessness continued, minimal protection/closed border Bangladesh (Rohingya), economic desperation/ opportunism (Bangladesh)

Distance covered

470 km from Libya to Lampedusa (Italy)

4 km Bodrum (Tk) to Kos, 10 km from Aylavic (Tk)to Lesvos

30 km across Red Sea (Bab El Mendeb)

Bossaso to Al Mukalla 360 km

c.1800 km to Southern Thai coast from Cox’s Bazar / Rakhine


Means: how they move

Road, foot, sea (most smuggled)

Road, foot, sea (most smuggled)

Road, foot, sea (most smuggled)

Sea, road (most smuggled)

Means: how smuggled?

Smugglers sell migrants boats, no crew or skipper. Basic training on navigation often provided

Smugglers sell dingy, rarely accompanied by smugglers

Smugglers always crew boats

Converted fishing boats

Smugglers use big and small boats, Smugglers accompany migrants/refugees

(only abandon them in extremis)

Affected countries / regions (destination / transit countries)

Libya (Sudan), Europe (frontline country Italy)

Greece (then non-Schengen countries between Greece and Hungary / Slovenia). Ultimately Germany and Sweden, France, Italy and Switzerland etc.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Somalia (Puntland) and Somaliland.

Malaysia intended destination. Indonesia, Thailand affected. (India and Sri Lanka had been previously affected too but not in 2014/2015)


Central Mediterranean

Eastern Mediterranean

Gulf of Aden / Red Sea

Bay of Bengal / Andaman Sea

Policies of destination and transit countries

Libya predatory and corrupt / militias and factions detain many migrants, sometimes collude with smugglers.


Europe confused and contradictory policies since 2014. Italy lets them arrive and pass through their country after offering basic services at multiple reception / detention centres in Italy.


Dublin 3 agreements of fingerprinting asylum seekers generally not implemented.

Greece know they want to pass so they also assist them from Islands to mainland and then allow them to move on.


Some Balkan countries allow passage allowing those on the move to transit deep into Europe. German main destination in 2014 and especially 2015.


Dublin 3 agreements of fingerprinting asylum seekers generally not implemented.

Yemen offer Somalis prima facie asylum, many stay are registered with UNHCR / government.


Since 2010, Ethiopians are normally allowed to pass without being detained and deported. Saudi Arabia ambivalent. Mass expulsions of Ethiopians (165,000) and Yemeni (550,000)  irregular migrants in 2013/14


Yemeni refugees and Somali (returnees) accepted in Djibouti and Somaliland, Puntland and South Central Somalia

Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia reluctant to accept ‘boat people’. Unofficially Thailand previously allowed smuggling business to transit migrants through to Malaysia.


Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia tough on irregular migrants from Bangladesh: normally deported if found.


In 2009, 2011, 2013  and 2015 some boats were pushed back to sea out of territorial waters, sometimes repaired/given provisions (the Thais had provided very little food during earlier pushbacks)

Vulnerabilities / protection deficit

Pre-voyage: Rape, neglect, extortion, exploitation (less common), detention, murder. During voyage: drowning risk.

During voyage: risk of drowning

Pre-voyage: Rape, neglect, extortion, exploitation (less common), detention, murder. During voyage: risk of beatings, rape, murder and drowning if accidents occur or forced to disembark in water.

After arrival: kidnap for ransom and risk of trafficking of females.

During journey on sea and land: Rape, neglect, extortion, exploitation (less common), detention, murder. Incidents of abandonment on sea or on remote islands (2015). Death from dehydration and hunger high. Drowning risk low.


If unable to pay smugglers demands migrants face harsh treatment mostly on land. Uncounted deaths on land presumed to be significant.

Deaths (estimates)

2870 (in 2015)

559 (in 2015)

242 (in 2014)

1,100 (2014/15)

Absolute lethality of crossing (irrespective of distance)

2 %

(by this calculation most dangerous route)


(by this calculation least dangerous route)


(by this calculation 3rdmost dangerous route)


(by this calculation 2ndmost dangerous route)

Contrast: Vietnam boat people =10% deaths


Lethality (respecting distance  averages)

One death per 23,500 persons/km

(by this calculation 2ndmost dangerous route)

One death per 8,600 persons/km

(by this calculation most dangerous route)

One death per 32,500 persons/km

(by this calculation using proportional averages, 3rddangerous route)

One death per 154,000 persons/km

(by this calculation 4th/least dangerous route)

Anti-trafficking / smuggling interdictions

10,000 of new arrests in Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, UK, Italy etc. According to FRONTEX data) in 2014. Frontex arrests few smugglers and boats at sea. Actual trafficking cases rare.


EUNAVFOR MED Operation SOPHIA a joint naval operation has now entered phase two.

Turkey and Greek previously inactive in interdiction of smugglers. Some interdiction and arrests reported in Turkey since August 2014, when Turkish Coast Guard Command has initiated an operation called “OPERATION SAFE-MED” to “fight against irregular migration in the East Mediterranean with its own surface and air assets”. According to their claims, “Turkish Coast Guard Command continues its efforts to prevent irregular migration resolutely and determinedly.”

Reportedly, the Greek authorities try to fingerprint all new arrivals.


EUNAVFOR MED Operation SOPHIA a joint naval operation has now entered phase two.


Minimal interdiction: some show crackdowns of gangs extorting migrants but otherwise general impunity.

Authorities on land and see presumed to be in collusion with smugglers and extortionists. No/few arrests related to trafficking on sea recorded although some on land in Djibouti and Puntland.

Previously the smuggling trade continued with collusion by communities and officials.

Tougher action by authorities in 2015 led to increased vulnerability of migrants. Recent Thai / Malaysian government crackdown on trafficking camps in jungle (May 2015).

Trafficking cases (kidnapping, child brides) rare but increasing in 2014/15.


Central Mediterranean

Eastern Mediterranean

Gulf of Aden / Red Sea

Bay of Bengal / Andaman Sea

Protection at sea: overall

Comparatively high protection at sea / high protection on land inside Europe compared with other regions and what was available before 2014. Nevertheless there are numerous situations facing refugees and migrants in Europe that are less than optimum (exposure to elements, slow processing, prolonged detention, rejected asylum, xenophobic attacks…). On land inside Africa protection deficits severe.

Moderate protection at sea / high protection on land. Due to high numbers making the crossing Greek and Turkish patrols miss many people making the sea crossing. Once on Greek islands normally assisted to get to Greek mainland.

None on sea / limited on land in Yemen

(Ethiopians less catered for than Somalis, all vulnerable to neglect and predation by authorities and armed extortion gangs etc.).

No protection on sea and very limited and inadequate on land. Face strict law enforcement and active neglect by authorities in many locations


Multinational EU force FRONTEX (15 countries: Triton, replacing Mare Nostrum), commercial shipping, NGO initiatives (MSF medical), MOAS (private), individuals. UNHCR Action Plan: Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI), IOM Missing Migrants project etc.

Greek and Turkish coast guard in Aegean sea between Turkey and islands and between islands and Greece

Action by Yemen coast guard and Djibouti and Puntland coast guard is sporadic, corrupt and cannot be regarded as offering protection – sometimes the opposite: cases of sexual abuse by officials reported by migrants.

No multinational unified mission, no international agencies or private initiatives.

Most consistent assistance shown by fishermen (esp. Indonesia)

Three relevant governments initial response is to reject boats and push back out of territorial waters.

Disembarkation allowed only in special high profile cases in 2015. Irregular migrants detained in poor conditions. Access by IOs and NGO difficult or impossible.

Where they do it

Mainly in central Med route: Libya to Italy or Egypt to Greece, Malta and Italy.

Aegean sea

Off their own coasts, limited. Mainly corrupt.

Within territorial waters / ports

What they do

SAR, Rescue at Sea, disembarkation at safe ports Normally available to those who want: basic services provision, registration, profiling, screening and referral, family reunification, asylum processing, resettlement, assisted onward movement (controversial). Burial of dead.

SAR, Rescue at Sea, disembarkation at safe ports Normally available to those who want: basic services provision, registration, profiling, screening and referral, family reunification, asylum processing, resettlement, assisted onward movement (controversial). Burial of dead.

Basic services provision, registration, profiling and referral, limited family reunification, asylum processing, Burial of dead.(all by IOs and NGOs)

In rare cases where practiced: disembarkation, detention, deportation for non-asylum cases. Detention for asylum cases, with limited access to UNHCR processing for registration, status determination, and resettlement.

Relevant countries signatories to refugee convention?

All European countries signed but not Libya

All European countries signed as well as Turkey (with an exclusion). Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan not signed

Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia: YES Saudi Arabia: NO

Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia: NO


Signatories to SAR(International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue) , and SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea Convention)



SAR: All


SAR: All


SAR: only KSA


SAR: only Indonesia

Signatories to ‘Palermo’/Transnational Organized Crime Convention.

(anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking protocols)



All (except Somalia)



Large numbers rescued despite continued drownings. Concern that activities play into smugglers’ hands and serve migrant/refugee interests. EU Return Directive policy weakly enforced (39% of those with failed EU asylum applications in 2014 actually returned) – possible weakening of asylum regime legitimacy.


EU currently seen as having an open door (notably Germany but others such as Sweden..) for mixed migrant flows.

Large numbers assisted on arrival in Greek territory (land or sea). Concern that assistance and onward transportation play into smugglers’ hands and serve migrant/refugee interests. Return Directive policy weakly enforced (39% of those with failed EU asylum applications in 2014 actually returned) – possible weakening of asylum regime legitimacy.

EU currently seen as having an open door (notably Germany but others such as Sweden..) for mixed migrant flows.

Reduction in deaths at sea due to dynamics of smuggling / criminality in Yemen (migrants worth more alive than dead in recent years).


Somalis supported and ‘protected by virtue of the fact that they claim asylum or enjoy prima facie protection. Ethiopians not protected and continue irregularly / illegally in Yemen towards Saudi. Now in new flows (from Yemen to Africa) Yemenis and returned Somalis being assisted (minimally).

The desperation / hope dynamic drives more to leave. Huge ocean to patrol: problematic for any SAR initiative.

Also extensive, unpatrolled coastlines.


Without proper SAR and protection expect more deaths and more arrivals.


Commercial shipping rarely assist migrants. Cases where captains penalized for doing so and hard to find ports that accept disembarkation.


Central Mediterranean

Eastern Mediterranean

Gulf of Aden / Red Sea

Bay of Bengal / Andaman Sea

Protection provision changes?

Improving: On sea, more protection than previously

Improving: On sea, more protection than previously

Arguably improving: On sea certain level of in-built protection pertains (as smugglers ‘sell on’ live migrants to extortionist gangs)

Remains severe: no protection. Cases from May 2015 were exceptional. Not clear if countries will develop a more protective policy. Considered unlikely. Emerging consensus on identifying and addressing “root cause” of the movement.

Scenarios: how protection can improve

Extension of current SAR and other initiatives? Interdiction of smugglers?

Legal opportunities for movement increased?

Extension of current SAR and other initiatives? Legal opportunities for movement increased?

Implementation of rule of law and interdiction of criminals. Legal opportunities for movement increased? SAR hard to implement, possibly not needed.

Implementation of rule of law and interdiction of criminals. SAR hard to implement. More open refugee options for Rohingya and more open labour migration options for Bangladeshi? Legal opportunities for movement increased?

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.