Note: UNHCR's 2015 report on mixed maritime movements in South-East Asia is available here.
Approximately 63,000 people undertook irregular maritime journeys that passed through South-East Asia in 2014. The vast majority—an estimated 62,000 people—departed from Bangladesh and Myanmar bound for Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds of others followed routes through the Indian Ocean from South Asia and Indonesia to Australia, and across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia to Indonesia.
Such irregular maritime movements comprise mixed populations that include tens of thousands of persons of concern to UNHCR. Given the high proportion and total number of persons of concern to UNHCR departing by sea from the Bay of Bengal, as well as a lack of access to those who travelled along other routes, this report largely focuses on the irregular maritime movements that cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
Estimated number of people who have travelled irregularly by sea through South-East Asia
Serious and often deadly criminal activity and human rights abuses are commonplace along this route in particular, with survivors saying that human smugglers and boat crews routinely kill passengers with impunity. Approximately 750 people are estimated to have died attempting the passage in 2014, mostly due to starvation, dehydration, and beatings by crew members. Hundreds more are alleged to have died in smuggling camps in Thailand for the same reasons. Several individuals reported incidents of rape and some said they had been trafficked, though the coercive conditions of travel often blurred the distinction between smuggling and trafficking.
Irregular maritime movements are by their nature clandestine, making the data on such movements difficult to independently verify. The information in this report is compiled from various sources, including governments, implementing partners, media reports, and over 350 direct interviews with persons of concern who have undertaken irregular maritime journeys in South-East Asia.
Of some 62,000 irregular departures from the Bay of Bengal in 2014, 58,000 are estimated to have departed from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border, a 12 per cent increase over 2013, and nearly triple the number of departures estimated in 2012. Approximately 130,000 people have departed irregularly by sea from this border area since January 2012. At least 4,000 people also embarked from the Sittwe area in Myanmar in 2014.
Irregular maritime departures from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border most frequently embarked from Teknaf, Bangladesh, and from Maungdaw, Myanmar. Many people who ultimately embarked from Teknaf had travelled there from Myanmar either overland or by crossing the Naf River.
Estimated Irregular Maritime Departures from the Bangladesh-Myanmar Maritime Border
Departures from the Bay of Bengal peak during the traditional sailing season that begins in October, when calmer waters follow the end of the rainy season; more than half of all estimated departures since 2012 embarked between the months of October and January. The start of the current sailing season was marked by a greater surge than in previous years, with 28,000 estimated departures from the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border in the last quarter of 2014, a 23 per cent increase over the same period in 2013.
In 2014, Bangladeshi authorities reportedly rescued or arrested over 2,400 people (including smugglers and crew) attempting to depart irregularly by sea from Bangladesh, some of whom originated from Myanmar. Following the rescue in November of a boat southeast of St. Martin’s Island carrying nearly 600 passengers, dozens of passengers from Myanmar were charged with illegal entry.
Some individuals were reportedly forced onto boats against their will, including children who said they had been abducted by smugglers and marched onto boats at gunpoint.
UNHCR has interviewed recent maritime arrivals in Thailand and Malaysia who travelled on boats that cumulatively carried as many as 15,000 passengers in 2014. The median age of individuals interviewed by UNHCR was 19; one-third were under the age of 18. Some children who travelled unaccompanied were as young as eight years old.
Virtually all persons of concern interviewed by UNHCR intended to travel to Malaysia, where many had relatives. Most were either referred to smugglers by family and friends or recruited from their villages by smugglers. Some individuals were reportedly forced onto boats in Bangladesh and Myanmar against their will, including unaccompanied children who said they had been abducted by smugglers and marched onto boats at gunpoint.
Individuals voluntarily departing from the Bay of Bengal paid between USD 50-300 to board small boats that ferried groups of 5-30 passengers to larger fishing or cargo vessels with capacities ranging from 100-800 passengers. The boats on which interviewees travelled in 2014 carried average loads of approximately 380 passengers.
A few individuals arranged their own, usually smaller boats, without the aid of smugglers, but upon reaching land in Thailand were forced to engage smuggling networks to cross into Malaysia.
Across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, most passengers travelling irregularly by sea have been men, but many ships have also carried women and children, who are often kept in separate quarters. Approximately 10 per cent of these passengers in 2014 have been women. Boat crews in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea were armed and from either Myanmar or Thailand.
Although the usual sailing time between the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border and Thailand ranged between 5-10 days, individuals interviewed by UNHCR spent an average of two weeks at sea, and some said they were at sea for as long as two months, their boats idle or plying the coastline to take on additional passengers.
Estimated deaths at sea among irregular maritime departures from the Bay of Bengal
Conditions on board varied. Passengers were generally fed once a day or once every two days, but some said they were not fed at all. Meals consisted of a handful of rice, dhal, or dry noodles, plain except for occasional morsels of dried fish or chili peppers. Water was usually provided once or twice a day in small quantities; interviewees described drinking out of the bottom slice of a 350 mL plastic water bottle or, in some cases, from the bottle cap. Almost all individuals were, for the duration of the boat journey, confined to crouching within a space half the size of a prayer rug, shoulder to shoulder with others. Boat crews prohibited passengers from, and physically assaulted them for, attempts to move around or obtain more rations.
One in every three interviewees said at least one other passenger on their boat died en route; one in every 10 said 10 or more people died on board. Deaths were attributed to severe beatings by the crew, lack of food and water, illness, and heat. Interviewees described being beaten by wooden sticks, plastic piping, and rubber engine belts. Some passengers reportedly jumped off boats in desperation, while others went missing when forced to swim ashore or wade through waist-deep water upon reaching the coast of Thailand. Extrapolating the number of deaths at sea reported by interviewees in Thailand and Malaysia, approximately 750 people are estimated to have died along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea route in 2014.
Upon reaching the coast of Thailand, disembarkation was generally arranged by ferrying passengers to shore in smaller boats. They were then transported through the night in pickup trucks or vans with 15-20 others, forced to sit or lie atop one another as they were taken to camps located in or around hills, jungles, and plantations, sequestered by wooden fences and under plastic sheeting. Individuals were separated for departure to Malaysia depending on when and whether their relatives were able to make payments to smugglers.
Demands for additional payment were sometimes made in transit, but more often after individuals arrived in Thailand. Calls to relatives demanding payment were accompanied by threats or, when payment was not immediate, beatings and other acts of torture, including inducing stress positions for prolonged periods and, in one recent example, rubbing chili powder into the eyes and genitals of some individuals who had sought to pray on Eid al-Adha. Several interviewees said they heard of women raped in the camps.
Price demanded by smugglers for single passage from the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia
Approximately one-third of interviewees said at least one person died in camps in which they were held, for similar reasons as at sea: illness, starvation, dehydration, and killings by smugglers of individuals who attempted to escape or were unable to pay. In the last year, hundreds of people are alleged to have died this way in camps in Thailand.
Many individuals had been unaware of additional costs to be paid post-departure, while some understood that further payment would be required upon arrival in Thailand or after indentured labor in Malaysia. The total cost demanded by smugglers generally ranged from USD 1,600-2,400 per person. Given the number of departures, the human smuggling trade from the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia is estimated to have generated annual revenues exceeding USD 100 million in each of 2013 and 2014 and over USD 250 million in revenue since 2012.
Payments were made through a combination of hard currency, bank transfer, and mobile payment systems such as bKash. One man from Buthidaung, Myanmar, who had recently reunited with a brother in Malaysia, explained how he paid the MYR 8,000 (USD 2,340) that smugglers demanded for his release: his parents sold their property for MYR 5,000 (USD 1,460) and deposited the proceeds into the Myanmar bank account of a money courier in Yangon who, upon confirming the deposit, instructed an associate in Kuala Lumpur to deliver the same amount in cash to the man’s brother. The brother contributed an additional MYR 3,000 (USD 880) and deposited the total into a Malaysian bank account specified by the smugglers. Two days later, the man met his brother at a bus station after being released from a holding house in Kedah, Malaysia. He had spent 27 days in the camps in Thailand, first in Ranong and later in the border area near Padang Besar.
USD 100 million
Estimated annual revenue of the human smuggling trade from the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia
A few interviewees paid the full amount in vain, or were forced to pay twice, when their journey went awry, either because their camp was raided after payment had been made or they were deported from and returned to Thailand only to revert to the control of another smuggler. In the course of conducting protection assessments of people rescued from smugglers’ camps, UNHCR observed that some individuals had been previously rescued. The prospect of indefinite stays in Immigration Detention Centers (IDCs) or shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) had led them to seek a way out, usually by re-entering the cycle of smuggling.
Some maritime arrivals rescued by Thai authorities have been particularly vulnerable, such as children separated from their families, those with physical or mental disabilities, or the many who have lost sensation and mobility likely due to beriberi, which is caused by malnutrition and vitamin B1 deficiency. Effectively paralyzed, some of these individuals have been found abandoned by smugglers when their camps were raided by Thai authorities.
Recently identified groups of Rohingya and Bangladeshi arrivals in southern Thailand have undergone screening by a multi-functional government team to assess whether they are victims of trafficking. Those found to be victims of trafficking are protected by Thai law and are transferred to shelters, thereby facilitating their rehabilitation as well as the investigation and prosecution of suspected smugglers.
Although most people who departed irregularly by sea from the Bay of Bengal are believed to have disembarked in Thailand before moving onward to Malaysia, Malaysian authorities arrested 299 individuals who arrived directly in Malaysia on three separate boats in 2014. UNHCR had access to the 230 passengers from the first two boat arrivals in April and May, and sought information on 69 individuals who arrived in September.
UNHCR interviewed several other individuals who had disembarked directly in Malaysia without transiting through Thailand or being detected by Malaysian authorities. Such individuals said they had disembarked in Langkawi or had been ferried by speedboat directly from the Andaman Sea to the Malaysian mainland.
Reports of direct disembarkation in Malaysia also followed the surge of departures from the Bay of Bengal that began in October, with indications that smugglers were demanding payment from passengers at sea near the maritime border of Thailand and Malaysia, rather than in camps along the land border.
Hundreds of Rohingya who originally travelled by sea from the Bay of Bengal and reached Malaysia have in recent years undertaken further irregular maritime journeys to Indonesia across the Strait of Malacca. Such journeys have generally consisted of daylong trips on boats that carry 5-50 passengers and traverse one of two routes: from Klang, Malaysia, to Medan, Indonesia, and from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to Batam or Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia. Persons of concern from other countries of origin also reportedly travelled these routes, as did Indonesian migrant workers.
In 2014, 111 persons of concern who identified themselves as Rohingya registered with UNHCR (but may have arrived in previous years) in Indonesia. As of 31 December 2014, the total number of Rohingya registered with UNHCR in Indonesia was 729, of whom 699 have been recognized as refugees. Almost all are presumed to have arrived by boat from Malaysia, and approximately one in every five had previously registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. The few who arrived in Indonesia directly by sea from the Bay of Bengal intended to travel to Malaysia, but their boats veered off course due to weather or engine failure and drifted until being rescued by other vessels and taken to Indonesia.
Irregular maritime routes in 2014. Dotted lines represent routes intercepted by authorities.
The cost of maritime journeys to Indonesia varied depending on whether individuals had paid smugglers to go only to Indonesia or to be taken to Australia. The price per adult—children travelled half-price or as part of a family package—generally ranged between USD 300-700 to Indonesia and USD 1,500-3,000 to Australia, although attempts to reach Australia declined sharply in 2014.
Rohingya refugees in Indonesia who had attempted to reach Australia travelled first to Jakarta by bus and then flew further east to Makassar or Kendari, from where they were meant to board boats to Australia. Many did board such boats, some repeatedly, but all returned to Indonesia due to weather, engine failure, or interception by Australian authorities. Hundreds who originally departed by sea from the Bay of Bengal now reside in community housing units in Indonesia and, in the absence of any other durable solutions, await resettlement to third countries.
There are over 42,000 persons of concern currently registered in Malaysia who identify themselves as Rohingya, including over 10,000 who registered, but not necessarily arrived, in 2014. Most are presumed to have departed from Bangladesh or Myanmar by sea, disembarked in Thailand, and crossed overland into Malaysia, where they largely reside in the vicinities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
The overland crossing involved both walking and transfer by vehicle across the border into Malaysia, then confinement in holding houses located in Alor Setar, Sungai Petani, Butterworth, or Penang. Such houses are referred to—using the English word—as “receive” houses, consisting of one or two floors that hold up to 50 people at a time in several rooms. Most individuals did not spend more than a few days in a holding house before being released to relatives or friends at a nearby location, such as a tea shop or bus stop, where smugglers sometimes demanded a final payment of what they called rent or taxi money amounting to several hundred Malaysian ringgit.
One teenage girl from Myanmar was detained in a holding house for 11 days. She was released when her family agreed for her to be married to a Rohingya man already in Malaysia who, in exchange, paid her fare.
Confinement in a holding house lasted longer for those who had been transferred to Malaysia without yet making payment, a development some said was triggered by smugglers’ concerns over authorities raiding camps in Thailand. One teenage girl from Myanmar was detained in a holding house for 11 days while her family tried in vain to arrange payment. She and another relative were released when her family agreed for her to be married to a Rohingya man already in Malaysia who, in exchange, paid the fares of both her and her relative.
Since late 2013, UNHCR has seen an influx of Rohingya persons of concern in Malaysia with serious medical conditions—apparently developed while at sea and in smugglers’ camps in Thailand—who were either referred to UNHCR by government hospitals, relatives, and community members, or dropped off by smugglers or locals at UNHCR premises in Kuala Lumpur. They presented with symptoms that included acute poly-neuropathy, ascending paralysis, inability to ambulate unassisted, pain, difficulty breathing, and confusion or memory loss. Many were initially misdiagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, but UNHCR medical personnel later determined, in consultation with physicians who treated the patients in hospital, that these persons of concern were in fact suffering from beriberi, as a result of severe malnutrition and vitamin B1 deficiency during the course of their journey.
Persons of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia presenting with symptoms of beriberi
In 2014, 212 persons of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia—including 59 minors—presented with symptoms of beriberi, compared to a dozen during the period from August 2012-November 2013. The influx reached a peak of 37 new cases in February 2014. Two individuals who presented with beriberi symptoms died while admitted to hospital, within one week of approaching UNHCR. Health care providers, community leaders, and persons of concern in Malaysia have reported dozens of additional deaths.
UNHCR was aware of isolated maritime movements from Malaysia to Indonesia, Singapore, and Timor-Leste, and intervened with local authorities to ensure that persons of concern had access to asylum.
Although the predominant mode of irregular travel by people departing from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border region has been by sea, alternative methods and routes of travel have also been employed:
Overland to Malaysia via Yangon.
Several interviewees in Malaysia had avoided the boat journey to Thailand by initially travelling on foot for one month to Yangon, then riding buses or vans to the Myanmar-Thailand border and crossing either north through Kayin State or south through Tanintharyi Region.
Overland to India through Bangladesh.
Crossings both overland and across the Naf River from Myanmar to Bangladesh have reportedly been followed in many cases by overland movement further north and west beyond Cox’s Bazar, eventually entering India by train through West Bengal before moving onward within India, often to Jammu and Kashmir.
Overland to Bangladesh and by air to Saudi Arabia.
Once in Bangladesh, some Rohingya arrange flights to Saudi Arabia by obtaining Bangladeshi passports and visas for Saudi Arabia. The cost for such passage has reportedly decreased in 2014 from MMK 8 million (USD 7,740) to MMK 4.5 million (USD 4,350).
UNHCR is actively involved in the protection of persons of concern who travelled by sea in South-East Asia, and has made interventions such as:
Advocating with authorities for families of maritime arrivals to be reunited when possible.
In Thailand, UNHCR identified more than 30 family links among individuals separated from their families while being transferred to IDCs and MSDHS shelters. UNHCR has also cooperated with MSDHS and UNICEF to conduct Best Interest Determinations for 49 unaccompanied and separated children in 2014, and is in discussions to secure access to primary education for children identified as Rohingya.
Submitting vulnerable individuals for resettlement.
Limited durable solutions are available to maritime arrivals in Thailand, but since 2013, UNHCR has submitted the cases of 121 such individuals for resettlement consideration. In 2014, 50 maritime arrivals departed for resettlement from Thailand, including 10 unaccompanied and separated children.
Ensuring individuals with serious medical needs receive care.
In Malaysia, UNHCR addresses the serious medical conditions of persons of concern by referring them to various healthcare providers, depending on the severity of symptoms. Almost all cases are referred for emergency registration, and of 212 cases in 2014, UNHCR referred 85 individuals to shelters and provided guarantee letters for 42 so that they could be admitted to government hospitals. UNHCR also procured vitamin supplements to immediately and effectively treat persons of concern, largely in Malaysia, who present with symptoms of beriberi.
Nurul and his relative Faisal* are among hundreds of persons of concern who have spoken to UNHCR about travelling irregularly by sea in South-East Asia. Their testimony is typical of many who have made the maritime journey from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia.
With no assets in Myanmar to their names, Nurul and Faisal had been unable to afford the passage to Malaysia. So when a human smuggler approached them offering a sharply discounted price of MMK 50,000 (USD 50), they accepted, despite their doubts. One night in September, they were led by smugglers to the seashore, where dozens gathered to wait for a boat. As night passed, frustration grew. When some asked to return home, the smugglers brandished knives. Nurul heard one smuggler call a superior to say that many in the group did not have enough money to pay. “If I beat them,” the superior responded, over speakerphone, “The money will come out.”
In the morning, a boat arrived with an armed crew from Myanmar and Thailand. Nurul and Faisal and 600 others eventually boarded, including hundreds of passengers who had separately embarked from Bangladesh and a group of fishermen who were intercepted en route and forced onto the boat.
A single cabin above deck housed the crew. The two dozen women and children on board were kept in the open on the upper deck, which had two hatchways providing access to two lower levels otherwise enclosed by the hull. The level immediately below deck was a mezzanine running along the perimeter of the hull that encircled a large open space overlooking the bottom level. Both levels were filled to the edges with passengers.
Below deck, Nurul and Faisal were forced to squat for the length of the journey, brushing up against other men on all sides. A single fan the size of an ordinary table fan serviced the entire hold. They were fed one meal a day, a handful of rice scooped into a plastic bag with two chili peppers. One cup of water was given to each passenger twice daily, as was the opportunity to use one of two latrines on the upper deck.
Nurul and three others were made to carry the body above deck and throw it overboard, uncovered except for the clothes worn by the deceased. He was forced to do the same for the six that followed.
Those who tried to receive additional rations or use the latrines out of turn were beaten, including with belts; some were kicked down ladders as they tried to climb above deck. Several individuals were beaten to death, and a total of seven people died on board from beatings, starvation, or dehydration. Because the first was someone in Nurul’s immediate vicinity, Nurul and three others were made to carry the body above deck and throw it overboard, uncovered except for the clothes worn by the deceased. Nurul was forced to do the same for the six that followed.
After eight days, the boat reached the coast of Thailand, where smaller vessels were sent to ferry passengers to shore. In the rush to disembark, Nurul and Faisal believe five more people died while attempting to cross between boats. All others were taken to a large, forested camp after reaching shore, not to be sent on to Malaysia until they could each pay MYR 6,500 (USD 1,900). Nurul and Faisul were instructed to cry over the phone to their relatives and detail their suffering in order to elicit payment. Until payment was made, each person was beaten—sometimes with a cane—three times a day, in addition to being forced to stand in physically straining positions for hours at a time. One position required Nurul to bend his knees and hold his arms out as if sitting on a motorcycle; another was to bend over and hold his head between his legs. Faisul remembers the sting of chili powder being thrown in his eyes.
Faisul was released after eight days, and Nurul after 15, once their relatives were able to make the payments. They were both brought from the camp to a fence at the Malaysian border that they climbed over using ladders on either side. Each walked for several hours to a road where they were picked up by a vehicle and taken with 5-10 others to a holding house, which they called a “receive” house. From there, Nurul was sent by taxi and bus to relatives in Penang. Faisul was picked up at a nearby mosque by a Malaysian woman hired by a relative. A final MYR 300 (USD 90) was demanded from the woman before Faisul was released.