Graveyard conditions: Asia’s migrant crisis | ActionAid UK

Jane Moyo

Head of Media Relations

"It was like a graveyard," said one survivor. After 62 days at sea, suffering starvation, dehydration and abuse from people smugglers, he'd lost all hope of reaching shore alive.

Migrants wait to be rescued from their boat in the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia
Migrants wait to be rescued from their boat in the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia

The man told his story to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which is tracking the movement of Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladeshis seeking a better life in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

Shocking statistics

While Europe’s attention has been firmly on migrants crossing the Mediterranean, there is an equally tragic crisis in Asia as a new wave of 'boat people' take to the Andaman Sea.

The findings are shocking. According to the UNHRC:

  • 25,000 people, half from Myanmar and half from Bangladesh, took to boats between January and March 2015. An estimated 300 people died at sea as a result of starvation, dehydration or cruelty by boat crews.
  • In May, nearly 4,000 people were stranded at sea with few remaining supplies. This included 2,000 men, women and children who were marooned for more than 40 days
  • Most migrants pay an inital US$50 to $300 to board the boats but once they are in the people smugglers’ hands, they often demand much more money. Relatives are told to send as much as US$2,200, and those who cannot persuade their families to pay up are often beaten and detained - or worse. 
  • Conditions in smugglers' camps as people wait for transportation are horrific. Beatings are common, rape has been reported and those who try to escape risk being shot.

Since the UNHCR released these facts and statistics, mass graves have been uncovered in abandoned jungle camps in Malaysia. So what needs to be done?

Dealing with the migration crisis

ActionAid does not work directly with the Rohingya community in Myanmar but we work closely with organisations that address the intercommunal violence taking place.

We believe that everyone's human rights and dignity should be protected, and that governments should safeguard the rights of all people living in their territories. The criminal gangs who prey on the vulnerable and desperate need to be tackled. But it's the region’s governments that have pushed the problem from their shores and created a humanitarian crisis in their seas.

A co-ordinated, regional approach is needed to provide migrants with the support they need, including full and fair asylum processes.

Importantly, national solutions are needed to address the root causes of why people take to boats in the first place. That's why in both Myanmar and Bangladeshwe work to tackle poverty and injustice which are two of the major driving factors behind the exodus.