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IOM: Up to 8,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea

After boats carrying more than 2,000 migrants washed to shore in Indonesia and Malaysia, the IOM's Jeffrey Labovitz tells DW he fears thousands of other refugees are adrift off the Thai coast as smugglers refuse to land.

Following the rescue of more than 2,000 Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, authorities and rights campaigners fear that many more migrants are being held at sea with dwindling supplies. They say that people smugglers are reluctant to bring people ashore following a Thai government crackdown on human trafficking after the discovery of several mass graves in jungle camps near the border to Malaysia.

In the meantime, the Indonesian navy towed a boat carrying hundreds of migrants from Myanmar out of its national waters, and Bangladesh announced that it would crack down on smuggling rings that illegally send thousands of migrants to East Asian countries through risky sea voyages.

Jeffrey Labovitz, Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Thailand, explains in a DW interview why he believes that up to 8,000 migrants could still be stranded at sea off the Thai coast and why the migrants are now at even greater risk than before.

DW: How many migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar do you estimate are still stranded close to the Thai coast?

Jeffrey Labovitz: The Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya refugee situation and maritime movements in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, has provided the figure of 8,000 which IOM believes is credible. With disembarkations in both Indonesia's Aceh and Malaysia's Langkawi we are seeing a confirmation of boats stranded at sea.

Thailand Jeffrey Labovitz Migrationsexperte bei IOM

Labovitz: 'The fact that Thailand has cracked down on smugglers and raided camps means that boats are no longer landing in Thailand'

It is estimated that a journey can take four to six weeks. With an estimated 7,800 departures in March and a further 5,000 in April it follows that there will be a sizable number that remain off shore.

Of the boats which remain off shore it was reported by the Arakan Project that a boat has been abandoned at sea and is in distress with an estimated 450 people on board. We do not have details about food and water but there are no supply ships aiding the boat. The Arakan Project - which has estimated maritime departures for more than a decade - believes the boat is off shore some distance from Langkawi Island.

How is the Thai crackdown affecting the situation at sea?

With a crackdown in Thailand, the trend emerged that it was too risky for smugglers to land in Thailand and final payments for the journey were being made from sea vessels when previously payments had been finalized in smugglers camps, mostly in rubber plantations along the Thai-Malay border. The fact that Thailand has cracked down on smugglers and raided camps means that boats are no longer landing in Thailand.

What new risks and perils do the migrants now face?

Any delays in the migrants' journey results in more distress. About 1.8 percent suffer from beriberi, which is a thiamine deficiency. These most drastic cases lose their ability to walk and look like living skeletons. Another 2-4 percent are severely malnourished and 40 percent are undernourished. If there are any underlying health concerns, then their vulnerability is compounded.

On top of that, the boats are brutal. People are packed in, unable to move, with limited bathroom access. Water supplies can get contaminated with fecal matter, sea sickness can cause quick dehydration.

If someone complains they will likely get swift punishment and beaten, and in more severe scenarios will be made an example of. There are several reports of people being thrown overboard. There are not many good scenarios with extended periods on boats. People will die at sea.

What can the authorities do now to help these people and bring them to safety?

We urge regional cooperation and dialogue, and encourage all governments who can facilitate disembarkation for these stranded boat people. IOM teams in Aceh are already providing health and other assistance to 582 individuals who have landed in the area. IOM is also providing urgent assistance to those boat people who had previously landed in Thailand and who were found in border camps.

What is driving the increase in migrations from the area?

These boats are a mixture of people from Bangladesh and Myanmar's Rakhine State. It is not a simple answer. Some people are taking on these amazing and frightful risks for better economic opportunities, while others due to protection related issues. Increasingly we see more women and children on the boats as well.

Jeffrey Labovitz is Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Thailand.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.