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Mixed Movements in South-East Asia -2016

May 3rd, 2017  •  Author:   UNHCR Regional Office for South-East Asia  •  11 minute read
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2016 was the fifth consecutive year of large-scale movements of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar to other countries by land or sea, bringing the estimated total since 2012 to 168,500. A year-by-year breakdown of the outflow is presented below.

  • Following violence in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, in October and November 2016, as many as 43,000 Rohingya refugees were estimated to have crossed from northern Rakhine state into the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh on foot and by boat across the Naf River by 31 December 2016. An additional 31,000 newly-arrived Rohingya refugees were identified in Bangladesh in January and February 2017.
  • Thousands of Rohingya refugees were also believed to have travelled to India overland via Bangladesh in 2016, including 1,000 who have already registered with UNHCR, continuing what has been a steady flow since 2012.
  • Mixed movements of refugees and migrants by sea across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea remained disrupted in 2016, with only rumors of isolated attempts and no confirmed maritime arrivals. Small numbers of Rohingya attempted the overland journey from Myanmar to Malaysia in 2016, but dozens were apprehended en route.
  • The absence of large-scale mixed movements from Myanmar to Malaysia in 2016 followed a peak in such movements from 2012 to 2015, when over 100,000 Rohingya refugees were estimated to have attempted the sea journey alongside Bangladeshi migrants. UNHCR estimates on deaths, demographics, and the circumstances of women and girls during that period is presented below.
  • At least seven vessels carrying a total of at least 89 asylum-seekers and migrants sailed through South-East Asia in an attempt to reach Australia in 2016. At the end of 2016, there were 1,661 refugees and asylum-seekers who attempted to reach Australia by sea located in offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru or in detention centres in Australia.

Mixed movements are by their nature clandestine, making the data on such movements difficult to independently verify. The information in this report is compiled from various sources, including governments, implementing partners, media reports, and over 1,000 direct interviews with persons of concern to UNHCR who travelled in mixed movements in South-East Asia.

Unless otherwise noted, photographs are copyright of UNHCR.

New arrivals in Bangladesh

A Rohingya woman displaced by the recent violence in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, prepares food in an overcrowded makeshift site in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

The largest movement of refugees through South-East Asia in 2016 took place in the wake of attacks on border posts in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, on 9 October and 12-13 November that were followed by a military response to the attacks. By 31 December, an estimated 43,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly from Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state, had fled either overland to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, or by boat across the Naf River, which separates Bangladesh and Myanmar. Several capsizes were reported, resulting in dozens of deaths, and between 8 October 2016 and 22 January 2017, Bangladesh authorities reportedly acknowledged pushing back 5,316 Rohingya to Myanmar.

In addition to 31,000 more newly-arrived Rohingya refugees identified in Bangladesh in January and February 2017, a further 20,000 people are believed to have been internally displaced within northern Rakhine state since October 2016, though most of those internally displaced are believed to have since returned home. Access to the area remains restricted, particularly for international humanitarian staff and local Muslim staff, so figures cannot be verified, but the total estimated displacement of nearly 100,000 people is comparable to some 112,500 Rohingya believed to have travelled by sea to Malaysia from 2012 to 2015.

UNHCR staff in Bangladesh conducted confidential protection interviews of over 500 Rohingya families who arrived in Bangladesh after October 2016 to determine their needs and vulnerabilities. Most interviewees fled to Bangladesh after becoming direct victims of violence in Myanmar, while a minority had fled as a precautionary measure. flight was unknown. Some interviewees had recent bullet or burn wounds, and most said their homes had either been looted, burned, or demolished.  Due to the restricted access in many of the refugees’ places of origin in Myanmar, it has not been possible to conduct independent verification of these accounts.

Among the interviewees, children reported witnessing their parents shot dead in their homes, women said they were raped and sought medical treatment in Bangladesh, and the fate of hundreds of interviewees’ family members apprehended by authorities or separated during

The map below of northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, shows the main places of origin of refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh since October 2016, as reported in protection interviews.

New refugee arrivals in Bangladesh have also faced a variety of protection concerns inside Bangladesh. The absence of a protection-sensitive refugee registration process puts them in a precarious protection situation in which they remain highly mobile, seeking shelter wherever they can find it. Basic shelter and nutrition is lacking, and an outbreak of measles and acute watery diarrhea have been reported in settlements where new refugee arrivals have taken shelter.

Many Rohingya children like these live in overcrowded makeshift sites in Bangladesh having fled recent violence in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar.

Rohingya orphans seek safe space to heal

Click here to read about how UNHCR is working to identify and assess the best interests of unaccompanied children who recently arrived in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

Continued Movements to India

In India, 1,000 Rohingya who have registered with UNHCR said they arrived in India in 2016, having travelled from Myanmar overland through Bangladesh. Hundreds more who are expected to register with UNHCR in India in 2017 are likely to have also arrived in 2016.

Rohingya refugee children in India.

The movements to India in 2016 continued a steady flow of Rohingya into India in recent years. Since 2012, at least 13,000 Rohingya have entered India, virtually all via Bangladesh. Based on UNHCR interviews, Rohingya in India travelled in family units about 30% larger than Rohingya who travelled to Malaysia, and came to India because it was safer and cheaper than going to and living in Malaysia.

Unlike the previous maritime route across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, in which at least 1,800 refugees and migrants are believed to have died at sea from smuggler abuse and deprivation, the primary protection concern of Rohingya travelling to India was the risk of being detained for illegal entry to India. Abuse by smugglers was not common, as most Rohingya in India had engaged only a loose network of people smugglers and only at border-crossing points, in contrast to the professional and multinational smuggling networks that operated the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea route.

The crackdown on maritime smuggling networks since May and June 2015 has not resulted in an increase of Rohingya travelling to India. In the 18 months following the crackdown, Rohingya registration with UNHCR in India actually declined by 23% compared to the 18-month period prior to the crackdown. Recorded arrivals have similarly decreased since reaching a peak of 4,500 in 2013, suggesting that the overland route to India has not replaced the maritime route to Malaysia, but is rather a separate route catering to generally poorer Rohingya with less sophisticated means of travel and communication.

UNHCR seeks equal treatment for all Rohingya in Bangladesh

A small proportion who fled violence decades ago are considered refugees, while many recent arrivals remain undocumented and miss out on vital aid.

Click here for the story.

Disrupted Movements to Malaysia

Throughout 2016, refugee communities circulated rumours of isolated attempts to travel from Myanmar to Malaysia by boat, particularly in October and November, but corresponding arrivals by boat have not been confirmed.

Some Rohingya refugees who were rescued by Achenese fisherman in Indonesia in May 2015 were believed to have reached Malaysia in 2016 by crossing the Malacca Strait. That crossing, though relatively short and cheap, remained deadly, with over 100 migrants dying in capsizes between January 2016 and January 2017, including one in November that killed 54 Indonesian migrant workers. No refugees were known to be among the dead.

Overland, over 100 people were caught by authorities in Myanmar and Thailand attempting the road journey to Malaysia in 2016, about half of whom were Rohingya. Some had paid up to MMK 2.8 million (USD 2,050) each to reach Malaysia.

A family torn apart at sea

Rescuers plucked Yasin from the Malacca Strait, where he was clinging to planks for dear life. The young Rohingya refugee’s sister and parents were not so lucky.

Click here for Yasin’s story.

Date on earlier Movements

UNHCR has collated and analyzed data collected from over 500 interviews of refugees who were among over 100,000 Rohingya estimated to have crossed the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea from 2012 to 2015 (as noted above, UNHCR has not been able to identify any individuals who departed for Malaysia in 2016). Estimates of Rohingya refugees, who travelled alongside Bangladeshi migrants to Malaysia on this sea route, are based on the proportion of Rohingya and Bangladeshis as reported in UNHCR interviews. The results confirm previous observations that the crossing was one of the world’s deadliest, and that the proportion of women steadily increased over time.

As the table below shows, the fatality rate in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea was 1.2% from 2013 to 2015, with a peak of 1.7% in 2013. During the same period, the fatality rate in mixed movements across the Mediterranean Sea was 0.6%, with a peak of 1.6% in 2014 (in 2016, the fatality rate of the Mediterranean crossing was 1.4%). While deaths in the Mediterranean have been mostly attributed to capsizes and drownings, deaths in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea were largely due to smuggler abuse and deprivation.

Due to the increasing number of Bangladeshis who joined Rohingya crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, by 2015 there were almost an equal number of Bangladeshis and Rohingya on the vessels making the crossing. Based on UNHCR interviews, the cumulative number of Rohingya travelling to Malaysia on such vessels from 2012 to 2015 was approximately 112,500.

As UNHCR has previously reported, the growing number of women and girls who undertook this sea journey from 2013 to 2015 were often subjected to child marriage or other exploitative arrangements. To assess the specific and continuing vulnerabilities they face, UNHCR interviewed 85 Rohingya women and girls in Malaysia, India, and Indonesia in 2016 about the circumstances of their lives on the move. They are among 8,000 Rohingya women and girls registered with UNHCR in those countries between the ages of 14 and 34—meaning they were born stateless, following Myanmar’s enactment of its 1982 Citizenship Law—and had travelled in mixed movements from Myanmar and Bangladesh since 2012.

Ninety-two percent of the women and girls interviewed were married, and in all three countries had married at similar ages, between an average of 16 and 17; 18% married before they turned 16. The 80% of interviewees who had children gave birth to their first child at an average age of 18.

A Rohingya woman stands outside her shelter in Bangladesh.

The likelihood that a Rohingya woman or girl had chosen her own husband varied across countries. In India, 45% had chosen their own husbands; all the others’ husbands were chosen by their families. In Malaysia, however, only 24% had chosen their own husbands; 42% were married to husbands chosen by their families, and 34% by brokers or agents. One in every three women and girls interviewed said they were victims of domestic violence.

Rohingya women and girls now in India appeared to have received more education (in Myanmar) than those now in Malaysia, with 66% having received some education and 59% being literate, compared to 29% and 21% in Malaysia. One possible explanation is that Rohingya women in Malaysia were more likely to have left Myanmar before getting married, thereby interrupting their education. Although 66% of all interviewees said they wanted to earn their own income and 39% possessed some income-generating skill (usually sewing), only 7% were actually earning an income.

Rohingya arrivals in Bangladesh struggle to get back on their feet

Nearly four months after violent incidents drove them from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Rohingya women and children are living precariously with limited assistance and fears of deportation.

Click here for the story.

Attempts to reach Australia

Seven vessels were reported sailing through South-East Asia in an attempt to reach Australia in 2016, including: one vessel with 12 Sri Lankans intercepted by Australia off the Cocos Islands and returned to Sri Lanka in May; a vessel carrying 42 Sri Lankans and two Indians that departed from India and disembarked in Indonesia in June; another vessel carrying 21 Vietnamese who were intercepted and returned to Viet Nam in June by Australian authorities; and a fourth vessel with six Sri Lankans whom Australian authorities returned to Sri Lanka in August.

Australian authorities also reported intercepting two other vessels and returning the passengers to their countries of origin—to Sri Lanka, in one case in February—in the first half of 2016, but gave no further details. Indonesian authorities reported that one additional boat of six Bangladeshis was returned to Indonesia by Australian authorities in March.

Since September 2012, more than 2,200 individuals who attempted to reach Australia by sea have been transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The majority of individuals transferred reside in offshore processing centres in those two countries and are still awaiting a durable solution.

As at 31 December 2016, 415 individuals who attempted to reach Australia by sea were in detention in Australia. This includes a number of individuals transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru as well as individuals who attempted to directly reach Australia by sea before the “offshore processing” arrangements were re-introduced.


Keane Shum, Associate Protection Officer, [email protected]

Vivian Tan, Senior Regional Public Information Officer, [email protected]