South-east Asia: thousands of Rohingya refugees may have perished at sea - new report

Rohingya refugees adrift off Thailand gathering food dropped by a Thai army helicopter in May © AFP/Getty Images
100 new testimonies show how persecuted Rohingya refugees from Burma suffered horrific abuses on board boats where beatings were systematic
 
Report comes ahead of new refugee ‘sailing season’ in the region 
 
Men, women and children from the persecuted Rohingya people who fled Burma by boat earlier this year were killed or severely beaten by human traffickers if their families failed to pay ransoms and thousands may have perished at sea, said Amnesty International in a new report today.
 
Amnesty’s 40-page report, Deadly journeys: The refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia, is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya refugees - mainly victims of human trafficking, and many of them children - who reached Indonesia after fleeing Burma or Bangladesh across the Andaman Sea. 
 
Particularly harrowing events unfolded in May - triggered by Thailand’s crackdown on human trafficking - as the traffickers’ subsequent abandonment of people at sea left thousands of refugees and migrants stranded for weeks in desperate need of food, water and medical care. While the UN estimates that at least 370 people lost their lives between January and June, Amnesty believes the true figure is much higher. Eyewitnesses who spoke to Amnesty saw dozens of large boats full of refugees and migrants in similar circumstances, but only five boats landed in Indonesia and Malaysia according to UN sources. Hundreds - if not thousands - of people remain unaccounted for, and may have died during their journeys or have been sold for forced labour. 
 
Amnesty International’s Refugee Researcher Anna Shea said:
 
“The daily physical abuse faced by Rohingya who were trapped on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea is almost too horrific to put into words. 
 
“They had escaped Burma but had only traded one nightmare for another. Even children were not spared these abuses. 
 
“The shocking truth is that those we spoke to are the ‘lucky’ ones who made it to shore - countless others perished at sea or were trafficked into forced labour situations. 
 
“With the monsoon over and a new ‘sailing season’ already underway, thousands more could be taking to boats and Amnesty is urging regional governments to urgently step up their response to the crisis.”
 

Hellish conditions and beatings and killings over ransoms 

Many Rohingya who spoke to Amnesty said that they had seen crew members kill people when their families failed to pay ransoms. Some people were shot by the traffickers on the boats while others were thrown overboard and left to drown. Others died because of lack of food and water or because of rampant disease.
 
Refugees have also described how they were kept for months in hellish conditions on very large boats, and severely beaten while traffickers contacted their family members, demanding a ransom. One 15-year-old Rohingya girl said the crew called her father in Bangladesh, made him listen to her cries while they beat her and told him to pay them £1,000. Virtually every Rohingya woman, man and child said they had either been beaten themselves, or had seen others suffer serious physical abuse. People were beaten with metal or plastic batons - sometimes for several hours - simply for begging for food, moving or asking to use the toilet. Many have been left with long-term physical or psychological scars.
 
Beatings were often carried out in a chillingly routine and systematic way. One 15-year old Rohingya boy said: “In the morning you were hit three times. In the afternoon you were hit three times. At night you were hit nine times.” 
 
Rohingya refugees were kept in inhuman and degrading conditions during their journeys. Boats were severely overcrowded, with people forced to sit in extremely cramped positions, sometimes for months on end. A local man who helped rescue people off the coast of Aceh in Indonesia said that the stench was so bad that rescuers could not board. Food and water was severely lacking and rations usually consisted of a small cup of rice per day. Many of the Rohingya who reached Indonesia were emaciated, had difficulty walking after being cramped for so long, and suffered from dehydration, malnourishment, bronchitis and flu. 
 

Persecuted at home 

The Rohingyas’ desperation stems from decades of persecution and discrimination in Burma, where they are effectively denied citizenship under national law. Waves of violence against the Rohingya, most recently in 2012, have forced tens of thousands into overcrowded camps where they live in desperate conditions. Some people said that they had been abducted by traffickers in Burma or Bangladesh, whereas others had been promised a safe passage to Malaysia for a nominal fee - a tactic commonly used by traffickers looking to coerce people into forced labour. 
 
Anna Shea said: “The Rohingya are so desperate that they will continue to risk their lives at sea until the root causes of this crisis are addressed - the Burmese government must immediately end its persecution of the Rohingya.” 
 

Doubts over safety in Indonesia

In May, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand initially pushed overcrowded vessels back from their shores and prevented thousands of desperate passengers from disembarking. Following international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to admit a number of asylum-seekers on the condition that another country accepts them by May 2016. Indonesia should be recognised for devoting resources to housing hundreds of vulnerable people in its Aceh province and working to fulfil their basic needs in cooperation with local civil society and international agencies, but there are serious unanswered questions about a long-term solution as the government has not clarified whether the refugees can stay beyond next May. 
 

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