Trafficked, beaten and sometimes even killed for ransom - a new AI report examines the horrors experienced by Rohingya attempting to flee persecution in Myanmar in May this year, and warns of another looming crisis.
"We felt so sorry whenever we saw the people dead and thrown to the sea. The people are dying on the ground in Myanmar […] and they are dying in the sea too." These are the words of a 15-year old Rohingya girl, speaking to Amnesty International (AI) about the conditions she and thousands of other migrants endured at sea for weeks during this May's Southeast Asian refugee crisis.
The girl is one of more than 100 Rohingya refugees who reached Indonesia after crossing the Andaman Sea on rickety boats, and whose testimonies - which are featured in a new AI report - describe killings and beatings by human traffickers and inhumane conditions on board overcrowded boats, as they fled Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Released on October 21, the rights group's 42-page document titled, "Deadly journeys: The refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia" takes a look at what it views as "inadequate" regional and international support to the refugees, and warns of another looming crisis as thousands more await to take the boats.
"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 Myanmar, but had only traded one nightmare for another. Even children were not spared these abuses," said Anna Shea, AI's Refugee Researcher.
"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 labor situations," Shea added.
A persecuted people
Amnesty warns of a looming crisis as thousands of Rohingya await to take the boats to flee persecution
The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority from Buddhist-majority Myanmar described by the United Nations and the United States as one of the most persecuted peoples in the world.
Myanmar views its population of more than 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Most of them are not citizens and outbreaks of sectarian violence have prompted many to flee. "An entire population feels their only option is to seek asylum by sea," Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights told DW.
Hundreds unaccounted for
The migrant crisis unfolded in May 2015 when a crackdown against human traffickers in Thailand, which has long been considered a regional hub for human trafficking, made the smugglers reluctant to bring people ashore.
The traffickers hence abandoned their rickety vessels between the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits, leaving the desperate migrants to fend for themselves for days without adequate food, water, or sanitation.
While the UN estimates that at least 370 people lost their lives between January and June 2015, AI believes the true figure to be much higher. Eyewitnesses who spoke to the rights group claim seeing 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.
The Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya refugee situation and maritime movements in Bangladesh, feared at the time that up to 8,000 migrants were stranded at sea. "Hundreds - if not thousands - of people remain unaccounted for, and may have died during their journeys or been sold for forced labor, said AI.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about 1.8 percent of migrants who embark on such perilous journeys suffer from beriberi, which is a thiamine deficiency. Another 2-4 percent are severely malnourished and 40 percent are undernourished.
"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," the IOM's Jeffrey Labovitz, Chief of Mission in Thailand, told DW.
According to AI, 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. "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," said the rights group.
Deaths and beatings
Many Rohingya also claimed seeing 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 disease, said the AI report.
Refugees spoke to AI about how they were kept for months on very large boats and severely beaten while traffickers contacted their family members, demanding a ransom. The 15-year-old Rohingya girl quoted by the rights group said the crew called her father in Bangladesh, made him listen to her cries while they beat her, and told him to pay them about $1,700.
There were also several reports of abuse, with many saying they were left with long-term physical or psychological scars from the violence. A 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."
Concerns over new 'sailing season'
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand initially pushed overcrowded vessels back from their shores and prevented thousands of desperate passengers from disembarking. But following international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to admit up to 7,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants on the condition that another country accepts them by May 2016.
According to Vivian Tan, spokesperson of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, many of the Bangladeshis - who tended to be economic migrants - have been repatriated with the help of their government and the IOM. The Rohingya, however, are unable to return to Myanmar for the moment. "Of the May arrivals, there are currently more than 600 Rohingya in Indonesia's Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, over 300 in Malaysia and some 50 in Thailand," Tan told DW.
Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College, argues that Indonesia deserves credit for not pushing the refugees away as Malaysia and Thailand did. "They have set up camps, acquired some land, and committed resources to care for them through May 2016. But Indonesia is going to have to come up with a longer-term strategy that will include integration."
Indeed, there are many unanswered questions about a long-term solution, as the governments involved have not clarified whether the refugees can stay beyond May 2016.
Moreover, with the monsoon over and a new "sailing season" already underway, thousands more could be taking to boats, said AI, urging regional governments to urgently step up their response to the crisis.
Root causes must be addressed
Vivian Tan said that while UNHCR has heard reports of a few boats departing from the Bay of Bengal in recent weeks, they don't have details on where they might have landed.
"It's hard to predict how many people could undertake this risky journey in the coming months, but we do expect people to continue leaving unless the root causes - poverty, underdevelopment, limited access to basic rights, citizenship problems - are addressed."
IOM's Jeffrey Labovitz says that while very few movements have been registered since May, there have been test cases by smugglers looking for holes in the crackdown. "While there may be people ready to go, smugglers are wary of arrests. Small numbers may be going in small groups, but only a few hundred, and not the 13,000 we saw in the first month of the sailing season last year."
But as analyst Abuza points out, the real humanitarian crisis remains the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, with radical Buddhists, including monks, continuing to incite violence against the group, and the government offering the community little protection.
"With more than 140,000 living in absolutely appalling conditions, with several million more with limited legal and political rights, and under threat of mob and vigilante attack, the crisis will end no time soon," said Abuza.