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Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis Could Currently Be Adrift at Sea

Smugglers preying on the Muslim Rohingya, one of the world's most persecuted peoples, have been forced to change tactics following a crackdown in Thailand — sparked by the discovery of mass graves.
Photo by S. Yulinnas/AP

Around 2,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued or swum to shore in the past two days off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia, while thousands of others are believed to be stranded at sea, following the discovery of mass graves in Thailand which have exposed widespread brutal human smuggling.

The majority of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, a minority group refused citizenship by the government there and subject to strict controls on their movement and rights to education and work. In February, Rohingya residents — labeled by the United Nations and human rights groups as one of the "most persecuted" groups in the world — also had their temporary voting rights revoked.


Many Rohingyas flee to Thailand, but the Thai government has launched a crackdown following the discovery earlier this month of dozens of human remains deep in the country's jungles, where desperate migrants are held in camps until they pay ransoms to secure their release.

Thai police are now looking for the camps, where migrants claim killings and torture are commonplace. Four have been discovered in southern Songkhla province during the past week.

Smugglers have apparently reacted to the crackdown by dumping migrants in shallow waters or leaving them floating at sea. Malaysian police say more than 1,000 were left off the coast of the resort island of Langkawi since Sunday, while around another thousand were rescued off the coast of Indonesia on Sunday and Monday. The International Organization for Migration believes as many as 8,000 could currently be adrift.

According to AP, the Indonesian navy turned away a boat that reached their waters on Monday morning, providing them instead with food and directions to Malaysia — reportedly the passengers' preferred definition.

Related: Authorities Investigate Mass Graves of Suspected Migrants Found in Thailand

Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, described the steady migration flow from Myanmar and Bangladesh as a "protracted problem," though she believes recent cases are "particularly concerning." She told VICE News: "One of the issues is that [those being rescued are] being characterized more as migrants but in reality they are refugees. They're people that are fleeing persecution and violence that is happening in their homes."


This is something that smugglers readily take advantage of. "The [smugglers] are basically preying on this pool of people who are trying to escape," she said. "The [migrants] are facing a cycle of abuse." Fortify Rights estimates Rohingya asylum seekers have generated $250 million for people smugglers since 2012.

Most are trying to get to Malaysia, according to Smith. "What needs to happen is that the governments in this region need to really take responsibility and recognize that this is a regional crisis, that there need to be protections for the Rohingya who are fleeing. They need to basically understand that they're playing a role in this crisis."

Fortify Rights estimates there are 650,000 displaced Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 25,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers' boats in the first three months of 2015 — twice as many as the same period last year.

Related: Rohingya Victim of Human Trafficking Found Suffocated in Truck in Thailand

Leonard Doyle, spokesperson for the Director General at the International Organization for Migration called the situation a "humanitarian crisis of the first order… The criminals are very clear. It's the people-traffickers and the smugglers," he said. "The victims are the migrants, and those are the two things to keep reminding ourselves of."

He continued: "The big issue is that the smugglers are really mistreating these migrants, these refugees depending on what they fall into, but at the end of the day they're all worthy of humanitarian support."


In terms of a solution, Doyle said: "You have to have strong policing at the point of origin… whether it's in the Mediterranean or whether it's in Thailand, law and order and the enforcement of law and order are probably the basis for so many things that have to happen. It's not complicated in many ways though it sometimes is made complicated by local politics."

Accepting that a lack of good government and law and order were often among the reasons migrants and refugees risked trusting their lives to the smugglers in the first place, Doyle added: "We really want the countries in the region to step up and do some life-saving. Like in Europe, you must save lives first and argue about the politics later."

In terms of the European migrant crisis and any notable similarities, Smith said that in both cases: "We're talking about protection at sea, that's really lacking." The difference, she said, was that "in the Mediterranean situation there's a bit more outreach, whereas in the Bay of Bengal there's not as much attention."

Related: Dozens of Migrants Bound for Malaysia Feared Dead as Trawler Sinks in Bay of Bengal

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd