Sucharita Sengupta (email@example.com) works as a research assistant at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group.
While Europe is facing its worst migration crisis since the Balkan wars in the 90s, closer home in Asia, it is the Rohingyas of Myanmar who have been subjected to an even worse fate. Their protracted refugeehood both in Myanmar and Bangladesh, coupled with the fact that they are stateless has compelled them to take to the sea in precarious journeys. While it was Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body brought ashore in Turkey that shook the entire world to wake up to the magnitude of the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, it were the images of a ship full of migrants- the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis- in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, in May 2015, that shocked the entire world, revealing the migratory and livelihooid crisis of the Rohingyas.
In this short write up, I intend to examine the migration of the Rohingyas in high seas through an exploration of the term ‘boat people’. Following massive persecution in Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, from the 1970s, to seek asylum. Since then, they have been living mostly in the Cox’s Bazaar area of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts in two camps, whose residents are not allowed to interact with the local population. After a new government came to power in Bangladesh in January 2009, followed by fresh violence in Myanmar in 2012, it has adopted strict measures to stop the inflow. While this mixed and massive flow of population should forge connection between various actors across nation states, particularly between the migrants and the host communities, it is in fact instrumental to the loss of an identity and fundamentally disconnects and uproots a whole people from their nation.
Already settled in the two refugee camps or in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazaar, mostly young men and women are taking to the sea to seek jobs in the Southeast Asia countries. Despite the risks, greater access to sea routes, in comparison to those across land, makes migrating, or often being trafficked to Southeast Asia and Australia easier, even though they end up, all too often, in border-detention camps, where they either die or become bonded labourers. The term ‘boat people’ was coined to describe the escape of the Indochinese refugees from the communist rule, following the Vietnam War in 1975. The entire process in which the Rohingyas have crossed the sea from either Myanmar or Bangladesh and the reasons for such drives have led many to recall the history of the boat people in the region, specifically the Vietnamese exodus, the biggest in terms of a disaster in the history of ‘boat people’.
The New York Times reports that around 6000-20,000 people have been found in ‘rickety flotillas’ in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca. After the graves were discovered in Thailand, the Thai government took strict measures to crack down on the traffickers. Initially, after the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis were abandoned at sea by traffickers, Malaysia had turned away two boats with more than 800 persons on board and Thailand had also “kept at bay a third boat with hundreds more”. Yet, despite risks at sea, migrants or asylum seekers have resorted to seas repeatedly. Among others, there is a high risk of being identified as pirates. The straight of Malacca, which is used as a route by the Rohingyas to commute, for instance, is notorious for sea smuggling and piracy. Incidents of drowning and deaths in high seas each year are also very high. Activists have even named the Mediterranean Sea as a ‘maritime cemetery’ with 3419 deaths in 2014 alone.
The humanitarian rights of the migrants’ at sea are therefore crucial and it is important to ensure that the rescued ships are docked at a safe location. The captain of one of the coastguard ships, revealed that the “The most dangerous part of a search-and-rescue operation is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide one’s rescuers. If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes. ” While rescue operations are important, there is also a need to examine the situation after a boat is rescued, but ambiguity shrouds these procedures and puts the migrants in a disadvantageous position.
The maritime migration of the Rohingyas had increased from 2006, when Malaysia started registering Rohingyas for residence or work permits. Although the process was soon suspended due to allegations of fraud, rumours of job opportunities spread in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, resulting into a sharp rise of middlemen or traffickers who could facilitate the journeys. For sea passage to the shores of Southern Thailand, around US$ 300 and for the final destination in Malaysia US$ 700 to 1000 was charged. A big international network of officials, brokers and agencies are involved in this entire process, operating in these four countries. With more and more migrants reaching these countries, the authorities have become more cautious about allowing them in. But instead of a reduction in the number of migrants, figures have increased. While traffickers continue to lure people to make these journeys, very few make it to their destinations and find work. In most cases, even after ransoms had been paid, the trafficked victims were not released. Those who were unable to pay ransoms were sold to plantation owners or fishing boats as bonded labourers. While young men are being trafficked in name of labour, women and children are increasingly being trafficked for sexual exploitation or as a recent media reports say, sold out in marriages. They are ferried in small boats, mainly fishing trawlers, to a large ship where they are joined with more persons from other boats. This ship then carries them first to the Thai coast and then to the final destination, Malaysia, through the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
A report of UNHCR on the maritime illegal migration between April and June 2015 says 6000 refugees have been abandoned by smugglers in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in May 2015. States concerned are well aware of the Status of the Rohingyas, of their plight, and yet deliberate ignorance and ‘push back’ either in land or sea has been the policies of the governments by and large. As a result many Rohingyas have either perished in the seas or have been living in detention camps as bonded labours in the Thai-Malaysian border. The flip side of the story is, when it comes to employing people in the most laborious industries, it is the Rohingyas who have been categorically employed for providing cheap labour, leading to the boom of a well knitted trafficking network connecting Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh to take innocents in precarious, perilous journeys in the name of work opportunity. Sea is the most accessible route for them since their settlements in Bangladesh are found mainly in Cox’s bazaar, a beach area. While young men are being trafficked in name of labour to Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia, and then are robbed off their belongings, women and children are increasingly being trafficked for sexual exploitation to these countries and India. Economic considerations are major pull factors for young boys, since they are not allowed to work in Bangladesh, even if they are registered with the UNHCR, for which they want to even risk their lives to reach countries like Malaysia.
‘Malaysia and Thailand turn away hundreds on migrant boats’, The Guardian, 14 May 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/14/malaysia-turns-back-migrant-boat-with-more-than-500-aboard, accessed on - 31 July 2015.
 ‘Death in the Mediterranean’, New International magazine: People, ideas and action for global justice, 27 May 2015.