The images seem all too familiar: men, women, and children crammed onto the decks of a boat, pleading to be rescued. For days, they have had no food or water. Many of them are fleeing persecution and violence, while some are merely seeking better opportunities. But these people aren't Syrian, nor are they crossing the Mediterranean -- they're Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
Earlier this year, thousands of people, mostly of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, embarked on boats in hopes of reaching Malaysia. It was a well-worn route, one that smugglers had used to transport Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants for months. But after Thai authorities announced a crackdown on human trafficking in May, smugglers abandoned their ships en masse while still underway. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people were left stranded at sea.
And no country would take them in.
2015 was the year that Southeast Asia faced its own refugee crisis, while the world focused on the plight of people fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa and landing in Europe. People were left in limbo as countries scrambled to figure out whether to take them in. And, much like in Europe, countries were unprepared to handle the sudden influx of people hoping to land on their shores.
The crisis forced leaders in Southeast Asia to take a hard look at longstanding issues within the region, including human trafficking, irregular migration, and the continued persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
One of the first and most obvious issues the crisis highlighted was just how unprepared Southeast Asia was to deal with the crisis. Irregular migration isn't new in the region: UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, estimates that around 63,000 refugees and migrants left Bangladesh and Myanmar by sea in 2014. The agency reported that in 2015, the rate of departures were rising. Though it's hard to establish where all the boats were headed, many experts agree that most of the Rohingya were headed to Malaysia, which already hosts a substantial population of Rohingya refugees.
But when these journeys were interrupted -- and countries had to publicly deal with migration -- the region lacked any clear mechanism for handling the refugees in desperate need of aid. In the initial weeks of the crisis in May, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia repeatedly rejected the boats, instead opting to provide fuel, water, and supplies and sending them back to sea. Thailand and Malaysia publicly stated that the refugees were not welcome. If they started taking in refugees, the governments said, more would come.
"None of these countries were prepared to do the right thing."
Countries eventually decided to take in refugees in late May, but only after intense pressure from international organizations and the media.
"There was a pretty clear failure by ASEAN [The Association of Southeast Nations] to deal with this situation. None of these countries were prepared to do the right thing initially," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "The fact that the initial response was to push [the refugees] back out and play this game of human ping pong shows the tendency of these nations to foist the problem off on their neighbors."
Indonesia and Malaysia announced in May that they would take in 7,000 refugees, while Thailand said that it would stop turning away boats. But the delay in these decisions took a significant human toll: UNHCR estimated that at least 70 people lost their lives from starvation, dehydration, and abuse during the crisis, while at least 1,000 remain unaccounted for.
Even though the worst of the crisis has passed, the future remains bleak for the refugees who were allowed to land. Indonesia and Malaysia have both made clear that refugees will only be allowed to stay until May 2016, after which they must be resettled to a third country. Neither Indonesia, Malaysia, or Thailand have ratified the UN Refugee Convention, which ensures some of basic rights and protections for refugees. Malaysia and Thailand currently do not even have a legal definition of who is a refugee.
The International Organization for Migration reports that around 5,500 of those stranded at sea were allowed to disembark in Southeast Asia. About 1,700 remain in detention centers in Thailand and Malaysia.
For now, boat journeys from Myanmar and Bangladesh have slowed -- UNHCR reports that only 1,000 refugees and migrants have departed by sea since September. However, human rights groups, as well as UNHCR, have emphasized that the root causes of the crisis still remain and must be addressed. Despite Myanmar holding a historic election this year, persecution and routine exclusion of the Rohingya in Myanmar continues. Two separate reports released this year, one by the Yale Law School for non-profit group Fortify Rights and another by the International State Crime Initiative at the Queen Mary University of London, have argued that there's strong evidence that the Rohingya are being subject to a genocide.
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Human trafficking also remains an issue. In May and August, authorities found numerous mass graves on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border, in sites that authorities say were once human trafficking camps. It's in part the discovery of these mass graves, and Thailand's attempts at closing them, that led smugglers to abandon their human cargo at sea. Though Thailand has announced that it would crack down on human trafficking, it's unclear how successful those efforts will be: previous investigative reports have shown that Thai authorities have been implicated in trafficking rings, and in December, a lead human trafficking investigator in Thailand fled to Australia, citing concerns for his life.
Numerous reports have also documented that many of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi on board the ships suffered brutal abuses at sea. In an Amnesty International report completed in October, Rohingya and Bangladeshi interviewees spoke of weeks and sometimes months spent on the ships, where they were routinely beaten and asked to pay ransom. Interviewees also described seeing people killed and their bodies thrown overboard.
In early December, Southeast Asian countries reiterated their efforts to tackle the problem, including establishing a joint task force on migration, as well as forming an ASEAN trust fund to assist victims of trafficking.
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Though experts have acknowledged that this is an important first step for the region, they have also stressed that countries have been slow to act. In its latest report, UNHCR has described efforts as "uneven."
"Countries in the region must focus on saving lives," said Vivian Tan, a regional spokesman for UNHCR. "This means stepping up their search-and-rescue efforts when there are boats in distress. Survivors must be allowed to disembark to places of safety and given the urgent assistance they need on land, including food, water and medical care."
"[Governments] must also work together to address the root causes of mixed maritime movements," said Tan. "If these issues are addressed adequately there would be fewer incentives for people to leave."
The same problems that are confounding European countries -- a lack of coordination among different states, and continued persecution in one country that will only lead more refugees to take perilous journeys -- are also present in Southeast Asia.
Anna Shea, a research and advisor on migrant rights at Amnesty International, said that the solution to forced displacement in the region will have to involve support from nations beyond Southeast Asia, especially nearby countries such as China, India, and Australia.
"This crisis has highlighted how important we realize that the refugee crisis is not just in Europe," said Shea. "We have to really think hard about what forced displacement means and we have to acknowledge that this is an issue which requires a global response and global thinking."