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'We need to save lives'

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
May 18, 2015

Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants remain stranded at sea, as Southeast Asian nations refuse to let them come ashore. The IOM's Jeffrey Labovitz calls on these governments to focus first on saving lives.

Bildergalerie - Thailand schleppt Flüchtlingsschiff auf das offene Meer zurück
Image: Getty Images/Afp/C. Archambault

Concerns are mounting for thousands of migrants reportedly abandoned on the seas between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as regional authorities seem keen on enforcing a policy to push boats back despite appeals by the UN and rights groups for a rapid rescue operation to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Myanmar recently acknowledged international "concerns" about waves of boatpeople, many of whom are Rohingya fleeing from persecution, but denied it is solely to blame. The comments come as fresh details emerged of migrants being involved on fights over food and others being thrown overboard.

Some 3,000 migrants from impoverished Bangladesh and Myanmar have been rescued or washed to shore in Indonesia and Malaysia over the past week. Their vessels were reportedly abandoned by smugglers, leaving the hungry and desperate migrants to fend for themselves for days.

Jeffrey Labovitz, Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Thailand, talks in a DW interview about the conditions migrants have to deal with on such boats and why the time to act for the regional authorities is now.

Thailand Jeffrey Labovitz Migrationsexperte bei IOM
Labovitz: 'We reckon that a total 5,000 people are still stranded out at sea'Image: International Office for Migration

DW: How many do you reckon are still out at sea?

Jeffrey Labovitz: We believe that an estimated 3,100 people have landed or been rescued, but the difficult part is ascertaining how many people remain stranded at sea. Given that the initial estimate was 8,000 people, we reckon that a total of 5,000 people are still adrift at sea. Although these are no exact numbers, we believe there are still plenty of people out there in need of help.

What conditions are these people facing on the boats?

We are providing direct assistance every time a boat lands. People aboard the latest boat that was rescued by the Indonesian authorities off the coast of Aceh on Friday told us that there had been fights over food, which was running out, and that people were thrown overboard as a result. However, we don't know how many as we haven't been able to independently verify this information.

Bildergalerie - Thailand schleppt Flüchtlingsschiff auf das offene Meer zurück
In such boats people are packed in, unable to move, with limited bathroom access and limited food supply, said LabovitzImage: Getty Images/Afp/C. Archambault

People are being transported in different types of vessels, but for the most part, smugglers use large or smaller fishing boats. In the larger ones, people are usually cramped in the hull, often lying down.

Smugglers pack as many people as they can in these vessels and don't let people walk around freely as this would pose a security issue for the smuggler. We have had reports of people being beaten if they stand up. So people are packed in, unable to move, with limited bathroom access and limited food supply.

Water supplies can get contaminated with fecal matter, sea sickness can cause quick dehydration. 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 two to four percent are severely malnourished and 40 percent are undernourished. If there are any underlying health concerns, then their vulnerability is compounded. The longer their ordeal lasts the worse it gets.

Has any help been offered to them by the Southeast Asian authorities?

We are aware of one boat receiving assistance. A Thai Navy helicopter dropped food rations and other provisions onto the vessel. We also understand there was an offer to disembark, but unfortunately it didn't materialize. We do hope, however, that disembarkation takes place at any location as soon as possible given that acute problem of lack of food and water.

What do you call on these governments and the international to do?

We call on them to save lives. The people stranded at sea are a relatively small number. There need to be joint search and rescue as well disembarkation plans. We also need to have better measures in places for protecting these people, facilities that are humane and meet certain standards. But first and foremost we need to save lives.

Bildergalerie - Thailand schleppt Flüchtlingsschiff auf das offene Meer zurück
The people stranded at sea are a relatively small number, said Labovitz, calling on regional government to save lives nowImage: Getty Images/Afp/C. Archambault

Thailand has announced a regional meeting on the crisis for May 29. But Myanmar - which refuses citizenship to its Rohingya minority - indicated it would stay away. Isn't the May 29 summit too little too late?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about that meeting. The meeting is very much focused on the broader issues such as the smuggling networks, how they work across countries and how they can be stopped.

The intention is not to take a decision on whether to rescue the people stranded at sea or not. I believe such a conversation is already taking place between the governments directly affected by the crisis. Malaysia said that its foreign minister would meet his Thai and Indonesian counterparts in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to discuss ways to tackle people smuggling.

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

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.

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