Another hellish refugee crisis looming in South East Asia

By Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s Refugee Researcher @AnnaLucyShea

“They threw us in the sea. We had to swim for hours – if we tried to hold on to the ship they would beat us. When we were nearly drowned they would take us back on the ship and beat us.”

These are the words of “Abdul,” a 15-year-old boy from Myanmar who was one of thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants who fled by sea earlier this year to escape violent persecution or desperate poverty.

Back home, Abdul had supported himself by herding cattle and washing dishes after his mother died when he was eight years old, leaving him an orphan. He eventually left Myanmar by boat in early 2015 with the aim of starting a new life in Malaysia: “I thought I could make some money and get a chance to study.”

For many, escape from Myanmar meant trading one nightmare for another, as they were subjected to sickening abuse at the hands of boat crews, in journeys lasting between several weeks and several months.

Anna Shea, Amnesty International's Refugee Researcher

But instead of finding the better life he had hoped for, Abdul, like so many others, was trapped in hellish conditions on the Andaman Sea. When the human traffickers who had lured him onto the boat discovered that he had no family to pay a ransom, they brought him to the brink of death. He thinks he was thrown into the sea at least 15 times as they still tried to extract money from him.

When I met Abdul earlier this year at a shelter for asylum seekers in Indonesia, he hid his painful past behind a bright smile. It was dreadful to think that someone so young had already suffered so much.

But the shocking truth is that Abdul was one of the “lucky” ones, because he survived the unprecedented refugee and trafficking crisis that gripped Southeast Asia in May 2015. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of others did not.

Abdul was on a boat that grounded in Aceh, Indonesia in May 2015. His was among the dozens of vessels that had been stranded at sea after Thailand announced a crackdown on trafficking; boat crews responded quickly by abandoning their passengers in the open water. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand initially pushed overcrowded vessels back from their shores and prevented thousands of desperate passengers from disembarking. Governments in the region were also very slow in setting up search and rescue operations. Following international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia permitted people to land, on condition that by May 2016, the migrants would return home and the refugees would leave for another country.

Today, Amnesty International is releasing a new report – Dangerous Journeys – that documents the horror from which people are fleeing in Myanmar, their vicious treatment by boat crews, and their current conditions in Indonesia.

Like Abdul, many of the passengers were Muslim Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, who have been subject to persecution and violence for decades. The authorities deny their existence and call them Bengalis, implying that they are migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

But for many, escape from Myanmar meant trading one nightmare for another, as they were subjected to sickening abuse at the hands of boat crews, in journeys lasting between several weeks and several months.

I met Rohingya who said they saw crews kill people and throw them overboard. People were beaten for moving, for begging for food or water, and for asking to use the toilet. Children were even beaten for crying. The conditions on the boats were inhuman and degrading, with extreme overcrowding, very poor sanitation, and completely inadequate food and water. One Indonesian man who helped rescue passengers said the stench from the boat was so overwhelming that rescuers could not board.

Many people were cruelly beaten until their families paid a ransom, after which they were transferred onto another boat or on shore. A 15-year old Rohingya girl told me that the crew called her father, made him listen to her cries while they beat her, and demanded 7,500 Malaysian Ringgit (about 1,700 USD) for her transfer onto another vessel.

These types of horrific abuses transform what may have begun as a smuggling journey – in which desperate people seeking safety willingly board boats in exchange for a fee – into a trafficking incident – in which people are ruthlessly exploited. The trafficking of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh has been reported for a number of years. The victims are kidnapped or lured onto boats, and then sold into forced labour situations on shore or at sea – sometimes within the context of the Thai fishing industry. Our research indicates that many – if not most – of the Rohingya who reached Aceh in May 2015 were victims of human trafficking.

Now, another potential disaster looms unless governments act. With the monsoons over in Southeast Asia, traffickers and smugglers will undoubtedly resume their trade. Without cooperation between governments to combat human trafficking, grave human rights abuses will again be perpetrated against some of the most vulnerable and desperate people in the region.

One key lesson from the disaster last May is that law enforcement efforts are inadequate on their own; also urgently needed are coordinated search and rescue operations, combined with safe and predictabl disembarkation procedures.

Astonishingly, despite the hardships of his life in Myanmar and the appalling abuses he had endured at sea, Abdul seemed hopeful about the future. He told me “I want to speak English, and get an education so I can help my people as a teacher.”

The future of people like Abdul now hangs in the balance. Governments in the region must act to protect the lives and human rights of asylum-seekers and migrants, and not wait for another tragedy to unfold.

This article was first published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation