Flight from Myanmar and Bangladesh leaves thousands adrift at sea

Bangladeshi migrants bathe in the sea at a temporary shelter in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, on May 18, 2015.
Bangladeshi migrants bathe in the sea at a temporary shelter in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, on May 18, 2015.
(Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images)

Everybody here has scars. They pull up their sleeves and sarongs to reveal cigarette burns on forearms, deep lacerations across thighs, festering sores on feet and shoulders.

Other wounds are invisible: They speak of disease, of near-starvation, of seeing fellow travelers die, then throwing their corpses over the bow.

“We had no food. No water,” Muhammed Koyes, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi, said as he paced frenetically outside a makeshift refugee camp here in Langsa, a port city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Koyes is among 700 refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar who were pulled ashore by Indonesian fishermen Friday morning after nearly three months at sea.

They had hoped to reach Malaysia, fleeing persecution and grinding poverty at home. Instead, they were savagely beaten and tortured aboard the boat, then abandoned by their smugglers. They spent 20 days drifting perilously, during which they were turned away by Malaysian and Indonesian naval vessels, they said, left to fend for themselves on the open water.

Southeast Asia is confronting its worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. Thousands of refugees are adrift in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca without food or water, turned away by nations that don’t want to appear welcoming to poor, uneducated migrants.


About 25,000 people departed Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat in the first three months of this year, according to a United Nations estimate.

Many are Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, who are fleeing persecution, virtual imprisonment — confined to squalid ghettos, watched over by armed guards — and ethnic violence. Many Bangladeshis also seek to leave, given their country’s crushing poverty and political crisis.

As many as 8,000 of the refugees may still be at sea with nowhere to land, said Jeffrey Labovitz, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Thailand. “We know of at least five other boats out there, and there could be others,” he said.

More than 370 migrants who had been stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia late Tuesday and early Wednesday, officials said, according to the Associated Press.

The journeys bear many similarities to the treacherous voyages that many Middle Eastern and African refugees have undertaken across the Mediterranean and that not infrequently end in death. In the case of the boat that Koyes was aboard, about 100 people died during the journey.

“Indonesian navy [gave us] water, noodles, no help,” Koyes said. “Malaysian navy [gave us] water, noodles, no help. They want to kill us. Kill us.” Five days after the last naval encounter, the boat sank near Aceh, Indonesia. Fishing boats came to the rescue and picked up the survivors.

But the migrants face deadly perils on land as well, as was made clear this month when more than 30 bodies were unearthed in the Thai jungle at the site of what was believed to be a human trafficking camp near the Malaysian border.

Authorities said the victims were Rohingyas who had starved or sickened at a makeshift detention camp run by smugglers demanding payment for travel into Malaysia.

About 3,000 refugees have found shelter in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days, after swimming ashore or being rescued by fishermen. About half of them are here in Aceh province. Visits to three refugee camps across Aceh bore out the urgency of the crisis, with many refugees saying they had expected to die within days if they did not reach land.

“This has been going on for so long,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based advocacy group. “The root causes of it, you have the Rohingya facing abuses for decades on end, and now just taking to the sea in huge numbers.”

It has been complicated, he said, by stepped-up border enforcement in the countries the migrants are trying to enter. “You’ve got large boatloads of asylum seekers, or victims of human trafficking in many cases, and governments in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand attempting to seal their borders from these people,” he said.

The crisis has deepened since the Thai government cracked down on human trafficking rings in early May, causing many traffickers and smugglers to abandon their clients.

“We hope Thai authorities will continue to be vigilant on this issue,” Smith said. “But until the abuses stop in Myanmar, we’re going to see a lot of boats coming.”

Over the weekend, an Indonesian naval vessel turned away another migrant boat from the country’s waters.

“Our duty is to protect the country’s borders and prevent ships from entering Indonesian waters illegally or without official documents,” Indonesian armed forces spokesman Fuad Basya said in an interview.

He said the military would give “food, water and other supplies” to the boats, but not allow the refugees to land. “We will continue to follow the same procedure, unless there’s a request from the Foreign Ministry to do otherwise,” he said.

On Sunday, hundreds of Rohingyas waited at a languid refugee camp in the Indonesian village of Kuala Cangkui, an 85-mile drive from Langsa, as United Nations workers darted between tile-floored shelters in bright blue vests. Dragonflies buzzed around, and a hot tropical wind carried the smell of earth and unwashed bodies.

Abdul Raman, a sad-eyed 27-year-old Rohingya from the village of Daung Khaled in Rakhine state, arrived in Aceh on May 10 after spending nearly three weeks adrift. He decided to leave Myanmar about a year and a half ago, he said, after Buddhist mobs hacked his parents and sister to death before his eyes. As he spoke, Raman held out his right foot, which was missing three toes — hacked off during the attack, he said.

Raman, a truck driver, said he was led out of Daung Khaled by a trafficker named Rafiq under the cover of darkness. Rafiq took him to another village, where he waited for months, then packed him onto a small boat off the country’s southern coast. That boat delivered him to a larger fishing boat, where he was crammed in with hundreds others — rail-thin Bangladeshi men, Rohingya men and women — in the beating sun above deck and damp darkness below.

The boat was led by five Burmese smugglers, who beat Raman and gave him only two handfuls of rice a day, a diet that experts say causes some seaborne refugees to contract beriberi, a rare disease that causes extreme emaciation, vomiting and, in some cases, death. After three months, the smugglers fled off the coast of Thailand, taking the remaining food and water with them.

“During that time, we were very thirsty and very hungry,” Raman said. “We drank salty water from the sea.”

After 20 days adrift, he saw a coastline. He did not know it was Aceh until he arrived.

According to U.N. estimates, the vast majority of refugees are migrants who pay smugglers more than $1,600 for their passage, although a growing number report having been trafficked — forced onto boats, often by criminal syndicates seeking to turn them into indentured laborers.

Although some in Myanmar and Bangladesh can afford to travel legally, the vast majority of migrants are extremely poor and reliant on illicit smuggling networks. Many are children, including unaccompanied boys as young as 8.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, a government led by majority Buddhists has denied citizenship to about 1 million Rohingyas, claiming they are immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations. Since sectarian violence erupted in 2012, more than 130,000 Rohingyas have fled to camps in Rakhine state, where they live in squalid conditions and are dependent on aid from international humanitarian agencies.

As Myanmar prepares this fall to hold the first nationwide democratic elections since five decades of military rule ended in 2011, it is weighing further restrictions on the Rohingya and other minorities. Under a proposed “action plan” for Rakhine state, the Rohingya would be required to register as “Bengalis,” a derogatory term that refers to migrants from Bangladesh. The government is also moving ahead with a controversial package of four laws that would severely limit minorities’ religious, marriage and reproductive rights.

Half a million Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, but even there, authorities have offered little protection and still seek to stop the flow of cross-border refugees. At the same time, Bangladeshis are fleeing the country, largely in search of jobs.

About 9 million Bangladeshis out of a population of 160 million work abroad, primarily in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Migrants from impoverished northern Bangladesh who cannot afford legal passage to countries in the Middle East, where jobs and wages are better, pay smugglers as little as 10,000 taka, or about $130, for a place on a boat that they are told will take them to Malaysia or Indonesia.

“There are many villages in northern Bangladesh where no men are there; they are all going abroad,” said Mohammad Jalal Uddin Sikder, an assistant professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh in Dhaka, who has interviewed migrants. Once the migrants are on board, however, Sikder said, the smugglers often increase the cost by 20 or 30 times, threatening to jail or kill those who don’t pay.

Bangladeshi authorities see the migrant networks as crucial to the economy. Foreign remittances account for the country’s second-largest source of foreign currency, after the garment industry. Bangladesh’s government has taken little action to crack down on smuggling; some experts believe corrupt officials even support the trade.

“It seems that the government is indirectly promoting this kind of migration,” Sikder said. “Our economy totally depends on remittances. If remittances collapse, it will be a disaster.”

Over the last two weeks, however, as reports emerged of mass graves of migrants near the Thai-Malaysian border, authorities in Bangladesh said they would show “zero tolerance” in human trafficking cases.

Police in the southern Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazaar, the point of origin for many migrant boats across the Bay of Bengal, have killed five suspected traffickers in shootouts since May 8. On May 12, the Bangladeshi coast guard seized a Malaysian-bound fishing trawler that was carrying 100 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas off St. Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal, officials said.

Law enforcement officials said they were tipped off to the boat by a migrant on board, Nurul Islam Bhutto, who called his brother asking for help to get him home. The brother told local journalists, who prompted the coast guard to launch a search.

Most of the Bangladeshis who landed in Aceh will probably be repatriated within days, aid workers say, whereas the Rohingyas could spend months waiting in the camps while refugee authorities process their asylum claims.

“We do a lot of assessments to determine their status,” said Mitra Salima Suryono, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency. “Each and every case is different. It can be a long process.”

On Sunday, Mohid Shorik, an 18-year-old Rohingya who fled a refugee camp in Bangladesh, sat on the tile floor of an open-air shelter in Kuala Cangkui among large black ants, filling out a U.N. form asking “why you believe that you are in need of refugee protection.”

“We have not any money to spend we are poor,” he wrote painstakingly, in English. “We have not any money. We need a lot of money. So I leave Nayapor Refugee Camp. I don’t want to go back.”

Times staff writers Kaiman reported from Langsa and Bengali from Mumbai, India. Special correspondents Mohiuddin Kader in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Ahmad Pathoni in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

Twitter: @JRKaiman

Twitter: @SBengali