53,000 fled Bangladesh and Myanmar of which 540 died
About 53,000 people left Bangladesh and Myanmar on treacherous smuggling boats bound for Thailand and Malaysia this year and about 540 of them died on the journey, says a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
About 1,000 more, especially those from different South Asian countries, have made voyages to Indonesia and Australia, according to the UN organisation’s January-November report titled “Irregular Maritime Movements in Southeast Asia” released on Friday.
“The outflow from the Bay of Bengal tends to peak in October, when calmer waters follow the end of the rainy season,” says the report prepared by the UNHCR Regional Office.
UNHCR, however, has not specified the number of Bangladeshis among them.
The majority are stateless Rohingya Muslims, fleeing ethnic tensions in Myanmar or poor prospects in Bangladesh, as well as Bangladeshis looking for a better life, the UNHCR said in a report.
Some 50,000 of these left from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border area, 15 percent more then left between January and November last year, and more than triple the estimated number of departures during the same period in 2012.
Almost half, 21,000 of these passengers left the border area in the last two months, a 37 percent increase compared to October and November 2013. About 10 percent of them are believed to be women. The remaining 3,000 came from the Sittwe area of Myanmar.
Roughly a third of these people interviewed by the UNHCR in Thailand and Malaysia were under 18 years. Children as young as eight years old are known to have made the journey alone, the UN refugee agency says.
In all, some 120,000 people are believed to have embarked on these voyages through the Bay of Bengal since the start of 2012.
With payments ranging from US$1,600 to US$2,400 for each passenger, smugglers plying this route are believed to have earned nearly US$250 million in the last three years, the report adds.
While the majority of people paid smugglers for the journey, there were people who said they were forced into making the voyages, sometimes at gunpoint, in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“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,” the report said.
“Conditions on the smugglers’ boats were dire. Survivors consistently described overcrowded conditions and daily rations of one sparse meal and one to two cups of water,” it says.
People who asked for more food or tried to use the toilet out of turn were beaten by the armed crew on the deck above.
An estimated 540 people have reportedly died along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea route in 2014 from such beatings, starvation or dehydration, illness, heat, and their bodies thrown overboard,” the report mentions.
On arrival, things were often not much better.
Smugglers demand only a small fee before departure but then refuse to release the migrants until their families pay more, often holding them for months in brutal camps.
Rohingyas and Bangladeshis who have arrived in Thailand in recent months have been systematically screened by government teams there to assess if they are victims of human trafficking.
“If found to be victims of trafficking, they are transferred to shelters to facilitate their rehabilitation and investigations of suspected smugglers. UNHCR hopes that this screening can be expanded to an assessment of all international protection needs,” the report notes.