By Kimberley Phillips
Aboard a state-of-the-art ship mounted with heat-seeking drones, a human rights advocacy group and a search and rescue charity will take to the Andaman Sea on 3 March – hoping to prevent more loss of life as Rohingya migrants continue their search for a safe haven.
Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) began operations in response to refugee crisis in the Mediterranean in 2013, but will now move into the troubled waters frequented by desperate migrants in Southeast Asia. The crew will utilise long distance drones to analyse the journey of migrants at sea, with the technologically allowing the team to promptly respond to emergencies.
Announcing a partnership with Bangkok-based advocacy group Fortify Rights, the charity will position its vessel M.Y Phoenix in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. Open water between Bangladesh and Malaysia is plied by members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, often in unsafe and overcrowded boats and almost always at the mercy of human traffickers.
A crackdown on people smugglers in Thailand last year blocked trafficking routes and forced the abandonment of ships packed with thousands of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. Smuggling channels remain largely closed, prompting a drop in the number of people fleeing Burma’s west in this year’s “sailing season”, the period of relatively calm seas between November and March each year.
Despite the drop in numbers, the Fortify and MOAS believe the harsh conditions imposed on the population in Burma could prompt further exodus. More of the one million Rohingya Muslims in Burma remain stateless and displaced, after deadly communal violence with Arakanese Buddhists ignited long-held tensions between the groups.
Speaking to DVB, Fortify Rights founder Matthew Smith said his team was unsure of how many people may yet still flee this season, adding that conditions in Arakan State remain persistently grim.
“The figures are less than last year, but any number of refugees in distress at sea would warrant a search and rescue operation. Some in Arakan State are waiting to see if their situation will improve under the NLD, others are more despondent,” he said.
Smith called on regional governments to address the root causes of irregular migration: “The MOAS operations are impressive and the technology is state of the art, but MOAS can’t do it alone. Regional governments need to prioritise protection at sea and allow asylum seekers and migrants to disembark. We will continue to engage with regional governments to improve human rights protections for refugees and migrants, at sea and on land.”
The 2015 Southeast Asian Migrant Crisis led to thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants arriving in the Indonesian province of Aceh, having been abandoned by traffickers and then bounced between the Burmese, Thai and Malaysian navies in what Amnesty International has referred to as “maritime ping-pong”.
MOAS and Fortify Rights believe some migrants currently languishing in Aceh may now plan to continue onward to their original destination of Malaysia, as reports filter through of human traffickers facilitating the journey at a heavy price.
Announcing the joint mission, MOAS founder Christopher Catrambone said in a press release: “The task of the M.Y. Phoenix will be to observe and analyse irregular movements at sea with the goal of supporting local stakeholders in providing an enhanced life-saving response. Our aim is to generate a better understanding of the movements by the refugees and migrants and be ready to assist in cases where there is an imminent threat to loss of life.”
“As we have already successfully done in the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas, we are cooperating and participating in an ongoing dialogue with regional stakeholders to see how our mission can be best performed. We are leaving no stone unturned in our mission to mitigate loss of life at sea,” said MOAS director Martin Xuereb said in the release.
M.Y Phoenix will cast off from a Bangkok port and remain at sea for a minimum of four weeks, observing and advising regional governments on how to minimise the casualties of people smugglers.
Crew on board the ship include migration, security, aviation and linguistics experts who will remain in contact with stakeholders and regional authorities as they monitor situation. MOAS insists that all operations undertaken by crew fall within the framework of laws at sea.