Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis Explained, in Maps

It's taken the stranding of some 6,000 migrants from Myanmar -- or perhaps even several times that number -- at sea to really raise the alarm about Southeast Asia's migrant crisis.


Just as it took a deadly shipwreck to finally put the spotlight on the dire migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, it’s taken the stranding of some 6,000 migrants — and perhaps several times that number — at sea in Southeast Asia to raise the alarm about another migrant crisis stemming from what some observers describe as a genocide playing out in Myanmar.

Like Europe’s, Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis isn’t new. Every year, between late fall and the start of Southeast Asia’s monsoon season in April or May, thousands from the Rohingya ethnic group, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that faces intense persecution at the hands of the government and other factions, board rickety fishing boats to flee their country. Extremist Buddhist mobs have carried out pogroms against the group, and the government of Myanmar denies the Rohingya basic rights of citizenship. This systematic campaign of persecution, violence, and exclusion, has led many activists to argue that Rohingya are the victims of ethnic cleansing.

Persecution in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has forced Rohingyas to rely on people smugglers in order to migrate elsewhere in the region, in Asia’s biggest mass exodus by boat since the end of the Vietnam War. It’s a journey of immense risk: The smugglers who arrange the trips often mislead, exploit, extort, enslave, or sell their charges. This month, migrants have faced the worst possible consequences, finding themselves stranded at sea with nowhere to go. Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia all have refused to let migrant boats land on their shores, and thousands of Rohingyas — the exact number isn’t known — now find themselves on floating prisons.

“Six people on our boat died due to illness and hunger, and the captain ordered that their bodies be thrown to the sea,” Muhammad Shorif, a 16-year-old Rohingya, told AFP after becoming one of the relatively lucky migrants to wash up near Aceh, Indonesia, without being turned back. Shorif said he had hoped to quickly find a good job in the relatively wealthy Malaysia. Instead, he spent a month on a ship crammed in with hundreds of other hopeful migrants, facing beatings and living on minuscule rations until their ship washed up in Aceh.

While Southeast Asian countries’ current refusal to admit Rohingya migrants seems particularly cold-hearted, it’s part of a long-running refugee crisis. Before the latest wave, countries such as Malaysia and Bangladesh had already taken in large numbers of migrants, leading in some cases to serious clashes between Rohingyas, other ethnic groups, and state forces — a sad echo of what’s happening in Myanmar, the country they fled.

The Rohingya are far from the only ethnic group migrating from Myanmar, but they are leaving in the largest numbers, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

For Rohingya migrants, the choice of if and where to immigrate involves balancing the desire to flee persecution and find economic opportunity against serious risks to their lives. Many travel first to Bangladesh, which is reachable by land from Myanmar, dominated by fellow Muslims, and itself the source of many migrants. Some Rohingyas, as well as Bangladeshis, choose to make the more dangerous sea voyage to wealthier Malaysia or Thailand — a trip during which migrants run a greater risk of trafficking or death by starvation, drowning, and disease.

The difference between Myanmar’s GDP per capita — the region’s lowest — and those of other nearby countries’ suggests one reason why migrants choose to embark on the risky sea journey:

Malaysia and Indonesia feel especially besieged partly because in recent years other countries have closed off alternatives for migration. Under Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative government, Australia in September 2013 began a program called Operation Sovereign Borders to stop migrants from reaching the Australian mainland. The program has been quite effective in “stopping the boats” — if not at figuring out what to do with the migrants on those boats.

Southeast Asian countries now seem to be adopting a similar approach. Thai authorities have launched a broad crackdown on migrant trafficking after police earlier this month found several mass graves of Myanmar migrants whom smugglers had imprisoned in Thailand while extorting their families for money. Thai policing efforts have made it more difficult to transport migrants on overland routes, pushing more to make dangerous ocean journeys. The Thai crackdown also has made it harder for migrant boats to land there, forcing them to head back out to sea.

With no country willing to take them, the thousands of migrants bobbing in fishing vessels and other boats along Southeast Asia’s lengthy coastlines are stuck in what are effectively prisons if they’re lucky, and coffins if they’re not.


Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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