More boats and a pandemic bring urgency to unanswered questions of the Andaman Sea crisis
As the world comes to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic, crowded boats in the Bay of Bengal are once more forcing the region to confront the plight of Rohingya refugees seeking safety by sea.
Listen to a 10 minute interview with Madeline Gleeson here.
The 2015 Andaman Sea crisis
Five years ago, as many as 8,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants were left stranded at sea after people smugglers abandoned their boats and neighbouring countries refused to allow them to come ashore.
At the height of the crisis, in May 2015, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were accused of ‘playing a three-way game of human ping-pong’ with the thousands of people abandoned on board at least eight boats in the region’s seas. In one case, almost 1,000 people were packed onto a 30-metre long trawler, and left adrift.
They were among an estimated 31,000 people who, in the first half of 2015 alone, boarded smugglers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The fatality rate was three times higher than in the Mediterranean Sea. But whereas in the Mediterranean most deaths were from drowning, here people died of ‘mistreatment and disease brought about by smugglers who abused and in many cases killed passengers with impunity’, as well as ‘a fight over diminishing supplies on a boat that had been prevented from landing on two occasions’.
While many washed ashore or were rescued by Acehnese fishermen, the official position of the three main countries involved was to push back any boats that entered their waters and not allow disembarkation.
Despite this early approach, the crisis subsequently proved to be a catalysing moment for the main countries involved and the region more generally. At the trilateral level, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand initiated a series of meetings to discuss their collective responses to the crisis and manage its aftermath. At the regional level, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (Bali Process) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) took various steps, albeit belatedly, to resolve the crisis and better prepare the region for possible similar incidents in the future.
Ultimately, the response to the Andaman Sea crisis left open the question of whether the region was any better prepared to respond to future situations of mass displacement and maritime movement. However in 2017, when an extraordinary outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state prompted another mass exodus of Rohingya refugees, the region was not tested in the same way. After crossing the border into Bangladesh, an estimated 745,000 Rohingya remained there, swelling the Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement to almost a million people. There they have remained in congested camps, dependant on humanitarian aid, in extremely difficult conditions, but unwilling to return, despite various repatriation efforts, because of fears of what would await them back in Myanmar.
A fresh wave of boats
The five-year anniversary of the Andaman Sea crisis was always going to provide a timely opportunity to reflect on the events of 2015 and return to the question of the region’s preparedness for mass maritime movements of refugees and other groups. Then came new reports of Rohingya stranded on boats in those same waters.
In April 2020, a fishing trawler carrying almost 400 Rohingya refugees was rescued by Bangladesh after attempting to reach Malaysia and spending almost two months at sea. The rescued passengers were severely malnourished, dehydrated and could barely walk. At least 30 people were believed to have died due to starvation and dehydration during the journey, their bodies thrown into the sea. According to one man on board:
Within a week or 10 days after setting sail we reached close to Malaysia. But the Malaysian coast guard stopped our trawler. They would not let us get closer to the land. Our boatmen made several attempts to bypass the coast guard patrol and reach the shore. But, all attempts by our boatmen failed. We knew that because of the coronavirus outbreak in Malaysia the authorities became unusually strict and did not allow us to land there.
This boat was believed to be one of at least three carrying Rohingya refugees that had been rescued in recent times. But the dangers did not stop further ventures.
In early May came news of at least two boats carrying about 500 Rohingya refugees who had attempted to reach Malaysia but were believed to have been turned away and to be floating somewhere on the high seas.
Once again, the desperation of the Rohingya was being exploited by traffickers offering unsafe passage to the promise of a better life in Malaysia.
Then and now
While in some ways the recent stories of boats adrift in the Andaman Sea are eerily reminiscent of events five years ago, there are some key differences.
In 2015, journalists, non-governmental organisations and international agencies had greater freedom of movement and capacity to track the boats and record the treatment of people following disembarkation. This time around, COVID-19 has created different conditions. There are no compelling images and video footage of desperate faces on overcrowded trawlers and rescues as they happened, as there were in 2015. It’s now not possible for reporters and human rights defenders to launch their own vessels and search for missing boats at sea. It remains to be seen what effect this lack of coverage has had on our understanding of the situation this time around. Much may still be unknown.
The second difference is that countries in the region are not starting from scratch this time. As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pointed out:
unlike in 2015, the region now has an agreement and a framework for responsibility-sharing and collaboration to rescue those at sea, through the Bali Process. Rather than repeating the rows of the past, it should reaffirm and reactivate its existing commitments.
Ban has urged Australia and Indonesia, as the Bali Process Co-Chairs, to activate the Consultation Mechanism established in the wake of the Andaman Sea crisis and bring together affected countries to facilitate a timely and regional resolution of the present situation. Yet, despite being better prepared this time, the region has so far proven equally as unwilling or unable to provide protection to those in need. Indonesia and Australia have been remarkably silent on the issue of Rohingya boats, at least publicly. Neither the Bali Process nor ASEAN has launched institutional-based responses or called together their respective members to discuss the issue formally. Instead, it has been largely left to Bangladesh to ‘rescue’ the people stranded at sea and bring them back to its territory.
Which brings us to the third key difference: Bhasan Char, a small Bangladeshi island in the Bay of Bengal, 30 kilometres from the mainland.
Bhasan Char (or Thengar Char) was formed in 2006 by deposits of Himalayan silt. It is vulnerable to cyclones, storms and erosion, and it is often submerged at high-tide and during the annual monsoon season, from June to September. But despite the precariousness of this small piece of land, Bangladesh has, since 2015, floated various proposals to transfer thousands of Rohingya refugees there from the overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar. In May 2015, Bangladesh proposed sending 32,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, in a move that the UN and many Rohingya community leaders, reporters and locals described as challenging or impossible.
UN representatives and human rights groups continued to raise concerns over the following years. Nevertheless, by 2019, after constructing housing, flood barriers, a cyclone shelter and essential facilities on the island, Bangladeshi authorities proposed to relocate more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees from the teeming camps of Cox’s Bazar which were hosting more than a million Rohingya by that time.
The plans did not eventuate in 2019. In January 2020 a UNHCR representative said the agency was not ready to endorse relocation and was still waiting for a chance to visit the island. But COVID-19 presented a new opportunity to reopen the Bhasan Char option.
In May 2020, 280 of the Rohingya refugees who had been rescued at sea trying to reach Malaysia were brought back to Bangladesh and taken to Bhasan Char for quarantine, purportedly to prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the overcrowded Cox’s Bazar camps from where they had departed. This move has prompted some concern that COVID-19 may provide the cover for a larger transfer of refugees to the island, finally fulfilling the long awaited plans of ‘decongesting’ the Cox’s Bazar settlements.
Besides immediate fears about safety and the vulnerability of Bhasan Char to environmental threats, there are grave concerns about the effect of isolating Rohingya on a relatively inaccessible island, potentially cut off from the lifeline of humanitarian aid and with no real opportunities for education or employment. Any forced transfer would also be cause for alarm. Whether such developments are ahead remains to be seen.
A critical moment
At this critical moment, the Kaldor Centre begins a series aiming to inform regional discussions about protection. With analysis from a diverse range of perspectives, this series will include a mix of shorter opinion pieces and longer research-based articles, from refugees, academics, human rights organisations and others at the forefront of forming regional policy in this area. We aim to consider how far the region has come in the past five-years, encourage critical discourse about the steps yet to be taken, and showcase the work of scholars in the region, including people with lived experience of statelessness and refugeehood.
About the Author
Madeline Gleeson is a lawyer and Senior Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney, where she directs the Offshore Processing and Regional Protection projects. Madeline specialises in international human rights and refugee law, with a focus on the law of State responsibility, extraterritorial human rights obligations, offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, and refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific region. She has extensive experience working with forcibly displaced people around the world. She has conducted research on asylum seekers and refugees, statelessness, human trafficking, labour migration and land grabbing with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, and worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in Geneva, Switzerland. She also has human rights experience in South Africa and Indonesia, and previously practiced as a solicitor in Australia.
If you are interested in contributing to the Kaldor Centre's special series marking the five-year anniversary of the Andaman Sea crisis, either in a standalone piece or response to an existing contribution, please contact Madeline Gleeson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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