Closing borders and pushbacks have led to death, abuses

(BANGKOK)—Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia should immediately coordinate search and rescue operations for Rohingya asylum seekers and possible survivors of trafficking from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are stranded at sea, Fortify Rights said today. The governments of these three countries should open their borders to asylum seekers and provide survivors with access to asylum procedures, protection from detention and forced returns, and freedom of movement.

“This is a grave humanitarian crisis demanding an immediate response,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “Lives are on the line. Regional governments should act decisively to rescue and protect asylum seekers and trafficking survivors, not drive them back out to sea.”

Following the discovery of mass graves of more than 30 bodies in an abandoned human trafficking camp in Sadao District, Thailand, authorities arrested several suspected traffickers, including government officials. Thailand has also increased its border enforcement and redoubled its policy of pushing away ships of asylum seekers from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Some human traffickers have abandoned ships at sea, leaving thousands of people stranded. More than 2,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshis landed in Aceh, Indonesia and Langkawi, Malaysia this week after members of a transnational criminal syndicate abandoned ships.

Fortify Rights confirmed hundreds more people are adrift on deserted boats at sea and several thousand others may be following them. Several ships carrying Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution and systematic abuse in Myanmar reportedly departed Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent days and are destined for Thailand and Malaysia.

Governments in the region and the wider international community should commit financial and technical resources to facilitate a coordinated response to saves lives and ensure protections for asylum seekers, survivors of human trafficking, and migrants, Fortify Rights said.

On Monday, the Indonesian Navy towed a boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya from Myanmar out to the open sea. “We towed the boat out of Indonesian waters after giving them food and drinks,” Navy spokesperson Manahan Simorangkir reportedly said. On Tuesday, Indonesia rejected a similar boat carrying “thousands” of passengers from Myanmar and Bangladesh, pushing it into open waters. Malaysia also vowed to seal its borders to boats carrying Rohingya and Bangladeshis. “We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” said Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, on Tuesday. Mr. Kwee specified that the Navy would provide “provisions and send them away” unless the boats are unseaworthy and sinking.

Thailand has long implemented a so-called “help-on” policy, pushing ill-equipped boats of asylum seekers and possible survivors of human trafficking back out to sea. Thailand authorities typically provide minimal food and water to boats before directing them toward Malaysia. In April 2015, senior government officials described the policy to Fortify Rights as “humanitarian.” 

Fortify Rights has documented how Thailand’s pushbacks and failure to provide protection have directly led to abuses, death, and mass graves.

“Mohammed Tasin,” an 18-year-old Rohingya man from Sittwe, Rakhine State, fled Myanmar in 2012 on a ship carrying more than 100 Rohingya men, women, and children. “We were arrested at sea by the Thai [authorities],” Mohammed Tasin told Fortify Rights in 2014. “They provided drinking water and cut the anchor and towed the boat to the west for one day and one night. Then they just let us go.”

Mohammed Tasin’s boat inadvertently made landfall on an island, where Thai authorities arrested them again. The group spent 11 months detained in an overcrowded, ill-equipped detention facility in Ranong before Thai officials handed them over to human traffickers. 

Human traffickers brought Mohammed Tasin and dozens of others to a remote jungle camp in Thailand, where they tortured their captives and demanded up to 60,000 Thai Baht ($2,000 USD) for their freedom. Mohammed Tasin described how he and others witnessed many people die in the camp. Traffickers then forced them to bury the bodies in mass graves. 

“In the camp, 17 people died our last few weeks,” Mohammed Tasin told Fortify Rights. “We’d bury the dead bodies in the morning and sometimes when we came back, another would have died.” 

“Pushback” and “help-on” actions and policies violate the principal of non-refoulement, which prohibits the “rejection at the frontier, interception and indirect refoulement” of individuals at risk of persecution. Although Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are not signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the principle of non-refoulement is part of customary international law and is therefore binding on all states. Under this principle, all countries in Southeast Asia are obligated to protect Rohingya from being returned, including through returns that are informal such as pushbacks out to sea.

Regional governments should allow asylum seekers and migrants to disembark rather than pushing ships back to sea or into the clutches of human trafficking syndicates, Fortify Rights said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates 130,000 Rohingya have departed by sea from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State and Bangladesh since 2012. This figure does not account for regular departures from several other townships in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, including townships where mass violence broke out in 2012 and where sizable camps for displaced Rohingya are located, Fortify Rights said.

“Governments in the region are playing human ping-pong, pushing boats back out to sea while claiming to crackdown on human trafficking,” said Matthew Smith. “All governments have a responsibility to protect survivors of trafficking and asylum seekers. No government can credibly claim to be combatting trafficking while simultaneously creating a ready pool of desperate and insecure people at sea.”


Since 2013, Fortify Rights has interviewed hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar and dire conditions in Bangladesh. Fortify Rights has also spoken with more than a dozen human traffickers knowledgeable of the transportation, detention, and abuse of Rohingya persons at sea and in trafficking camps in Thailand and Malaysia. In recent days, Fortify Rights has obtained phone numbers of asylum seekers confirmed to be on ships abandoned at sea.

Human trafficking syndicates have worked in collusion with authorities in Myanmar and Thailand and tortured Rohingya and Bangladeshi captives to extort hefty payments in exchange for passage to Malaysia, particularly since 2012. Rohingya unable to pay have been sold to fishing boats as slaves or into other situations of exploitation.

Regional governments are now closing their borders to asylum seekers, at times using dangerous and unlawful practices.

For decades, Myanmar authorities have committed widespread and systematic abuses against ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, including forced labor, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, and avoidable deprivations in humanitarian aid. Due to Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, an estimated one million Rohingya are stateless in Myanmar. In February 2014, Fortify Rights exposed state policies in Myanmar imposing restrictions on Rohingya marriage, childbirth, freedom of movement, and other aspects of daily life. Fortify Rights believes these abuses amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The implementation of these policies leave Rohingya with few options but to flee their country. 

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled their homes in Myanmar following state-sponsored violence and targeted attacks against Rohingya in 2012. More than 150,000 Rohingya are currently confined to squalid internment camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Fortify Rights documented the complicity of Myanmar authorities in the transnational trafficking and smuggling of Rohingya in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Myanmar Police, Navy, and Army officers have demanded payments from transnational criminal syndicates to allow Rohingya individuals to depart Rakhine State, and Myanmar Navy ships have escorted boats carrying asylum seekers to international waters. 

Read the testimony of Fortify Rights Executive Director Matthew Smith to US Congress regarding the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (April 22, 2015).

Read the press release, Myanmar: Authorities Complicit in Rohingya Trafficking, Smuggling (November 7, 2014).

Read the 79-page report Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (February 2014).

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