First-of-its kind effort to save lives at sea in Southeast Asia

(Bangkok, February 26, 2016)—Fortify Rights today announced that it would join the global search and rescue charity MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) in its mission in Southeast Asia aimed at mitigating loss of life at sea.

Beginning March 3, Fortify Rights will be onboard the MOAS vessel M.Y. Phoenix to support in monitoring irregular migration at sea and provide contextual guidance. The M.Y. Phoenix will maintain positions in the Andaman Sea and adjacent waters to provide search and rescue services as needed, in coordination with local authorities. 

“We’re honored to work with MOAS to protect human rights at sea,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Thousands of Rohingya refugees have died needlessly on risky boat journeys over the years, fleeing persecution and abuse. MOAS brings a much-needed service to the region.”

MOAS will use long-distance, state-of-the-art drones to measure movements of ships that may be transporting refugees or migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The team will coordinate with local coast guards, navies, local nongovernmental organizations, experts, and the media.

“We are privileged to be working alongside Fortify Rights, an organization that has a long history of protecting human rights in the region. They bring insight and understanding to a complex and trans-national problem,” said MOAS founder Christopher Catrambone.

Fortify Rights will assist with data collection and post-rescue human rights documentation in coordination with MOAS, the news outlet Migrant Report, and other partners regionally.

Since 2012, an estimated 170,000 Rohingya and others have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by sea according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A report issued by UNHCR on February 23 found that refugees and migrants at sea in Southeast Asia died at a rate three times higher than those in the Mediterranean during this past year.

While maritime departures from Myanmar and Bangladesh have decreased significantly since the beginning of this year, the authorities in Myanmar have not addressed root causes that have driven Rohingya refugee outflows for decades. Myanmar authorities continue to confine more than 145,000 displaced Rohingya and other Muslims to 67 internment camps in Rakhine State, and more than 1 million other Rohingya are stateless in Myanmar and denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.

MOAS will be the first organization equipped to provide an accurate first-hand assessment on the sea of irregular migration and will share its data with stakeholders to further dialogue and improve protections for Rohingya and other migrants in the region.

The initial voyage departs March 3 and will remain at sea for four weeks.

MOAS operates in accordance with the laws of the sea, including Article 87 of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, which provides for the freedom of navigation on the high seas, and Article 98, which requires ships to render assistance to “any person found at sea in danger of being lost.” MOAS has also engaged with regional stakeholders, including authorities in Malaysia and Thailand.

“It’s encouraging that regional governments are supportive of MOAS and its mission,” said Matthew Smith. “Too many lives have been lost at sea in this region. We hope that government support for this mission demonstrates a genuine commitment to end the scourge of abuses we’ve seen in past years.”

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 Thai government officials described the policy to Fortify Rights as “humanitarian.”

Malaysia and Indonesia have also been responsible for intercepting and pushing boats out to open water. Survivors that make it to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia lack adequate protection and are often subject to prolonged or indefinite detention.

Regional governments should allow asylum seekers and migrants at sea to disembark as needed and provide onshore protections, Fortify Rights said.

“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 U.N. 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 and other refugees from being returned, including through returns that are informal such as pushbacks out to sea.

International law forbids arbitrary and indefinite detention, including of non-nationals. The right to liberty is a basic human right protected by Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, a state may only restrict the right to liberty of migrants in exceptional situations and based on a case-by-case assessment of the individual concerned. Such assessment should consider the necessity and appropriateness of any restriction of liberty, including whether it is proportionate to the objective to be achieved.

“Every refugee on the move this year faces significant risks at sea and on shore,” said Matthew Smith. “A single boat in distress would merit search and rescue operations, and protection in disembarkation.”

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