A floating graveyard, is how one man described it to us. After leaving on a boat from Sittwe, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, he had spent 62 days at sea hoping to make it to Thailand or Malaysia, crouching shoulder to shoulder with 400 others.
They were given no more than a single scoop of rice each day, and a small cup of water. Anyone who asked for more rations, or tried to speak to other passengers, was beaten with plastic rods. Two passengers died; one from illness, another when he jumped overboard in desperation.
“We lost hope we would reach shore alive,” the man told us.
We have heard too many of these stories. In the last year, UNHCR’s team of maritime movement monitors has interviewed more than 500 individuals who left Myanmar or Bangladesh by sea, virtually all of whom had experienced the same harrowing conditions on board and in smuggling camps in Thailand, where they were held in open-air wooden cages until their relatives paid ransoms of up to $2,000.
Hundreds have arrived at our office in Kuala Lumpur, malnourished to the point of paralysis. This year alone, we believe as many as 300 people have died at sea from malnutrition, illness, and beatings by crew members, to say nothing of the scores of bodies buried deep in the jungle near the Thailand-Malaysia border.
Every day, three more people who get on these boats will never get off.
Scale of problem laid bare
This month, the discovery of graves containing those bodies, and the arrival of thousands of individuals on beaches in Malaysia and Indonesia, have shed new light on the human smuggling that runs rampant across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, a brutal trade that has generated upwards of $100 million in annual revenue for the smugglers.
In any given week of the last three years, hundreds and sometimes thousands of individuals from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been held just off the resort islands of Phuket and Langkawi at the mercy of smugglers, who have tortured and often murdered their human cargo in this sea of impunity. Many of the victims are refugees fleeing persecution.
This is a worsening calamity that has long passed the point of being addressable by any one country. It is a distinctly regional problem that requires a regional solution, with help from the larger international community.
What needs to be done
The most immediate need is for coastal authorities in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to rescue the thousands who may be currently stranded at sea since being abandoned by their smugglers, and safely disembark them to locations where their protection needs can be determined and met.
Some countries in this region have already offered to share guidelines for rescue and disembarkation, so that a consistent approach can be implemented across the region, thereby undermining smugglers’ attempts to leverage one country’s procedures against another’s.
Beyond the current emergency, there are concrete steps countries in this region can take to cease the flow of refugees out of the Bay of Bengal and at the same time ensure that those already in host countries receive the sustained protection they need.
For example, Bangladesh and Malaysia could offer legal stay and work options to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya originally from Myanmar already living and working in those countries.
Thailand would make significant progress towards its stated goal of combating human trafficking by prosecuting smuggling and trafficking ringleaders and offering victims legal avenues to at least temporarily stay and work, all of which are already provided for under Thai law. And to ease the burden of caring for those with acute medical and protection needs, countries outside the region could increase their resettlement intake of the most vulnerable individuals.
Root of the problem
The keystone that would hold each of these interlocking pieces together is the situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
If inter-communal strife in Rakhine State subsides, and all its residents are given the security and freedom they need to pursue their livelihoods, it would go a long way towards convincing other countries that any humanitarian measures they adopt would not simply increase the maritime flow of refugees.
We know from our work with countries in this region that they are willing, even eager, to offer humanitarian assistance, but are understandably looking for assurance that they will not have to do so indefinitely.
This need not be an intractable problem. The solutions are out there; some are even being explored already. But every day we delay cooperation, more lives — possibly dozens more — are lost. Every day we fail to act is another day when a mass grave will be unearthed, and another boatload of abused and malnourished refugees will wash ashore, another floating graveyard.
Daisy Dell is the Director of the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Headquarters in Geneva. The views expressed here are those of the author.