Thousands stranded at sea last year
Rohingya desperate to leave Myanmar, where they face oppression
Experts warn situation has not changed, and crisis could reoccur anytime
A year after one of southeast Asia’s worst refugee crises, things seem to have improved. But below the surface, the situation remains bleak.
In May 2015, the world watched in horror as human traffickers stranded thousands of people in the Bay of Bengal on rickety boats with scant supplies of food and water.
For weeks, the boats, packed to the rim with desperate people, remained at sea as country after country refused to take them in, until overwhelming international pressure and media attention forced action to be taken.
While the most recent “sailing season” — the time between monsoons when it is most safe for boats to travel — saw far, far fewer vessels taking to sea, observers warn that the root causes of the crisis haven’t gone away, while thousands of refugees remain trapped in camps and detention centers across southeast Asia.
“We talk about it being one year since the boat crisis, but for many survivors that crisis is still continuing,” says Amy Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based Fortify Rights.
Stranded at sea
Every year, thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar, where they suffer hardship and oppression in conditions that have been found tantamount to genocide by the Yale Law School Human Rights Clinic.
Myanmar’s government does not recognize the Rohingya, regarding them as “Bengali” migrants, despite many having roots in northern Rakhine state dating back centuries. More than 140,000 Rohingya currently live in overcrowded Internally Displaced People camps, with little access to food or healthcare. Thousands of others reside in segregated villages where they face poverty and persecution.
“Rohingya who leave Rakhine state are not leaving for economic reasons,” says Smith. “They are refugees being forced out of a country, where they have no freedom of movement and are confined to camps right on the edge of the ocean.”
This situation makes Rohingya especially vulnerable to human traffickers, who for years preyed on their desperation, charging them extortionate fees for transport through Thailand and by sea, primarily to Malaysia.
Many were forced into camps in the Thai jungle, where they were held with other refugees and economic migrants while smugglers extorted more money from their families for their release.
“They would call people with their relatives literally screaming in the background as they were chopping off fingers and torturing them,” says Joe Lowry, Asia spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
Since 2012, more than 170,000 people left Myanmar in this fashion, according to Fortify Rights. The trade came crashing to a halt in mid-2015 however, when Thai police discovered several mass graves in a human trafficking camp near the Thai-Malaysian border believed to belong to Rohingya refugees.
A subsequent crackdown on human trafficking networks saw dozens arrested, including many police officers and other officials.
“(The traffickers) were no longer able to get people by land through Thailand to Malaysia,” says Lowry. “That’s why we saw the boats at sea, the cargo of human life was no longer profitable.”
After weeks at sea, those people were eventually taken in, by Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and the crisis largely faded from view.
From camp to camp
For many of the thousands of refugees taken in off the boats, the situation remains bleak. Survivors are largely confined to government run camps and detention centers where, according to Smith, they have “no freedom of movement and their ability to have long term futures are several limited.”
“Under Malaysian law they’re all treated as illegal migrants, with no right to work, no access to the healthcare system,” says Richard Towle, the UNHCR in Malaysia, which pressures for refugees to be given the right to work and a path to legal residence.
According to Alicia Delacour Venning of the International State Crime Initiative, many of those who fled Myanmar “ended up again in squalid camps” across Asia.
Desire to leave
Despite the great dangers, risk of arrest and torture, and a barely improved situation for many of those who do make it to another country, everyone who spoke to CNN for this story agreed that the desire to leave Myanmar was as strong as ever.
While many Rohingya were cautiously optimistic following the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy earlier this year, Myanmar’s first democratically-elected government has taken little action to reduce the misery in Rhakine state.
“There was real hope around the elections,” Smith says. “Hope there would be real change for the Rohingya people, this made them hesitant to take risky journeys with potential change on the horizon.”
However, despite pressure from everyone from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the Dalai Lama, Suu Kyi has yet to act, only saying that Myanmar needs “enough space” to deal with the issue, and criticizing the use of “emotive terms” in describing the plight of the Rohingya.
“The situation is not getting better, it’s getting worse. If the government wanted to stop this misery and give us back our freedom it would be easy, but it is a religious conflict so they cannot do so,” Mohammed Ali, a community leader in Thet Kay Pyin camp in Rhakine, told CNN in March.
Last week, Zaw Htay, Suu Kyi’s spokesman, told reporters that it is “very important for the international community to realize the sensitive situation of Rakhine state, and avoid doing anything that would make matters worse and more difficult for the new government.”
A spokesman for the President’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With little changed except the number of boats on the sea, Smith warns the crisis could flare up again as soon as the current monsoon fades.
“It’s only a matter of time,” she says, adding that governments in the region have done little to prepare for another crisis.
“We haven’t seen any level of preparation or indication that they’re ready to deal with or respond to that situation.”
She warns too that, though disrupted, a full dismantling of the region’s lucrative human trafficking networks has not taken place, something Lowry echoes.
“Smuggling people is more profitable than smuggling guns or drugs,” he says.
“If we’re not vigilant it will happen again.”