Maritime Migration in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean: A dire need for greater cooperation

The Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean are historical maritime routes for both South and South-East Asia. Recently, these have emerged as routes for intra-Asian and trans-regional movements of people, mainly from Bangladesh and Myanmar, to Southeast Asian destinations (ex. Malaysia and Thailand) and then extend the journey towards Australia. The drivers of such migration are essentially informed by three factors: economy, conflict, and climate.


First, unemployment and the youth bulge influence the regular outflow of migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar and other South Asian countries to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. A significant part of it also undertakes irregular paths to reach the destination. For Southeast Asia as a destination, using the Bay of Bengal is a viable choice for many who could not have afforded the formal channels of migration.


Second, conflict in Myanmar has significantly escalated irregular migration along this route. After a series of ethnic clashes instigated by the Rakhine nationalists in 2012, about 140,000 of an estimated 1.1 million Rohingyas fled, ending up in camps within Myanmar. Some tried to escape Myanmar by sea and landed in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. In the May 2015 tragedy, some 32 shallow graves were discovered on a remote mountain in Thailand, at a so-called ‘waiting area,’ where Rohingya migrants were being held to be smuggled to Malaysia. It raised the flag for the international community on the gravity of the matter. In 2017, over one million Rohingya people escaped the Rakhine State of Myanmar to avoid death, rape, discrimination, and torture and took shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh. After the 2017 influx, they and their fellow Bangladeshi migrants accompanied together on the boat to cross the Bay of Bengal.


Third, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean expose a critical climate-vulnerable space. There is a prevalence of short-term natural disasters in the region, induced by seasonal weather shifts and long-term climate change impacts. Moreover, this is a densely-populated region, and a significant part of the world’s population lives along its coastline. Finally, this resource-abundance region has attracted other powerful nations for excavations and extending their strategic sphere of influence. It has become an essential sub-region in the international connectivity discourse and a strategically significant trans-regional space.


In such a critical maritime space, we have experienced the abandonment of thousands of men, women, and children by the state and smugglers. The network of smugglers and spoilers existed to maltreat the governance, arguably lowly addressed by some governments across the region. Irregularities in the migration governance and inhumaneness in migrants’ experience have made them more susceptible to the threats of complex vulnerabilities. Some countries have considered a mixture of hard and soft security approaches. For example, Malaysia recently pushed back to sea one and possibly more fishing trawlers with hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers aboard. Thailand has indicated that it will refuse entry to Rohingya boats. Bangladesh coast guard officials rescued one boat of Rohingya refugees, which had reportedly been turned away by Malaysia nearly two months earlier. About 390 starving Rohingya, most under 20 years old, were brought ashore, with reports that as many as 100 may have died on board before the rescue.


Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that turning around boats was “absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten.” Australia introduced Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led campaign to “stop the boats” with asylum seekers. Moreover, Australia had invested more resources in the detention centres on the islands of Manus and Nauru that had housed more than 1000 refugees and asylum seekers for several years before being pushed back to the sea. Thailand has engaged its naval forces to stop boat migrants, predominantly Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar, from landing on its territory. Moreover, it also implemented some harsh anti-refugee policies, including ‘push backs’ of any vessel attempting to disembark on the Thai shores. Malaysian former Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar said, “We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.” He also said, “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.”


The nations in the Indo-Pacific merit greater cooperation to deal with this crisis together. Although a majority of the countries in the region are not signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967, the concerned states should borrow the idea of the interpretation of ‘place of safety’ from the convention that includes the consideration of protection against threats to the lives and freedoms of those alleging a well-founded fear of persecution regarding refugees and asylum seekers retrieved from a situation of distress at sea. It is critical to note that a multilateral arrangement between the states in the Indo-pacific must not interpret ‘place of safety’ as prisons detaining the refugees and asylum seekers.


Again, there is a need to redesign the method of offshore processing, which is often used as a mere tool of border control that involves forcibly transferring asylum seekers to third states for legal processing of their claims. The detention centre, a temporary correctional facility offshore for the awaiting aspirant migrants, limits the fundamental rights to liberty and freedom of movement in international and regional human rights legal instruments. Therefore, it is to be understood as a measure of last resort and strictly in conformity with national and international law, bearing in mind the ‘underlying purpose of preventing persons being deprived of their liberty arbitrarily.’ As the Indo-Pacific nations promote a rule-based order, maritime migrants must be considered with a humanitarian lens, and the rules cannot just be technically imposed upon them.


It is discussed earlier how often disembarkation of rescued refugees has increasingly been denied by certain destination states in the Indian Ocean. As non-signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, most of these South and South-East Asia countries do not feel an obligation to the reception of refugees. Moreover, stringent national laws on citizenship and border control governance are an existential reality; the refugee and asylum management tasks remain ad hoc and vague. Broadly, these have highlighted an international practice of promoting non-arrival strategies and deterrent practices at sea. The security-based approaches in Europe also increased contactless control practices as ‘consensual containment’ schemes. Will the Indo-Pacific nations replicate the same? It is critical to rethink the strategies to prevent unsafe sea migration. Global best practices can inform the Indo-pacific regional cooperation endeavours; however, they may not need to borrow the statist policies among the coastal states and reproduce similar patterns here. In this regard, sustained cooperation between state and non-state organisations will produce a durable solution.


About the Author


Dr. Niloy Ranjan Biswas is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka. In 2016, he completed his PhD in International Politics from the City, University of London. He was a recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship (2010-12) to pursue a second Master’s degree in Security Policy Studies at The George Washington University, Washington DC. Dr. Biswas has co-edited two books and authored more than thirty journal articles and book chapters. He has written extensively on deradicalisation and preventing violent extremism, refugees and forced migration, security governance reform, and South Asian regional contributions to United Nations peace support endeavours. Email: niloy@du.ac.bd.

LATEST OP-EDS