Danger stalks boat migrants as numbers increase

The Spanish coastguard intercepts a traditional fishing boat carrying African migrants off the island of Tenerife in the Canaries. (Credit: UNHCR/A. Rodriguez)

More and more people are leaving their countries to find opportunity and safety, by boat. Migrants and refugees are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.  Reports on the incidents raise concerns about the circumstances that are leading people to undertake such dangerous routes. There have also been calls for efforts to be undertaken to stem the flow and protect the boat travelers.

The start of a new week this past August was met with reports of deaths and detentions for people trying to cross the Mediterranian. The weekend of August 27 recorded more than 300 migrant deaths. The majority came on Friday the 26th when a boat traveling from Tripoli, Libya to Europe capsized. Only 19 of the 270 passengers survived. The story repeated itself the following two days as more lives were lost due to boats turning over in the rough waters.

“What we are noting what is different is that the worsening security situation there is fostering the growth of ruthless smuggling operations. You see that by forcing all these people on these unseaworthy boats,” said UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming, following the incident. “UNHCR’s Tripoli office receives daily calls from refugees, asylum-seekers and other vulnerable people expressing fear for their lives and making desperate requests for food, water, medicine and relocation. ”

Fleming demanded immediate action from European leaders to respond to the increasing problem. The Italian Navy has shouldered much of the burden through its Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) operation. Many of the reports of rescues and deaths have come thanks to the operation’s response to the crisis.

Meanwhile, an equally concerning-but-vastly-different situation is taking place in Myanmar. Ethnic violence fore more than a year has displaced thousands of ethnic Rohingya. The government has done little to ameliorate the situation and neighboring Bangladesh is now allowing refugees to cross the land border between the two countries.

As a result, people using boats to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh is up by 60% from June 2013 to June 2014 as compared to the year prior. More than 53,000 people have used the sea, in total. Then there are the other 20,000 who have fled for Indonesia and Australia via the Malaysia-Thailand border. While some of the numbers come from near-by countries, the majority are refugees from Myanmar.

Those who make the sea journey are not likely to find freedom. The UNHCR report that noted the increase over the past year also found that 7,000 asylum-seekers and refugees are presently held in detention centers. The majority (5,000) are being held by Australia, in the country or at “processing centers” in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.