Understanding Why Maritime Refugees Rise in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, the current trends in freight and shipping industry seldom includes in-depth humanitarian issues like the refugee crises. However, despite the seeming indifference of mainstream media, it cannot be denied that concerns regarding maritime refugees in the region are on the rise. Most of these refugees come from the ethnic Muslim minority called “Rohingya,” who are trying to flee Myanmar due to violence and persecution.

The Rohingya people embark on dangerous voyages on small boats to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. While the governments of these countries and international organisations like the United Nations (UN) have already committed to accepting refugees and extended their assistance, it seems as if a lot of help is still needed to address the needs of these maritime refugees in the region.

The Main Factor That Drives Maritime Refugees in Southeast Asia

Refugees travelling by sea are not a new phenomenon. In Southeast Asia, mainly, one of the biggest refugee-producing countries at present is Myanmar, with an estimated number of 1.2 million refugees, the majority of whom are Rohingya people who seek protection in the region, often attempting to reach neighbouring countries by making the dangerous voyage across the Andaman Sea.

The main factor that drives these refugees to risk their lives at sea in search of protection in other countries is the long-standing conflict between the Rohingya minority and the Burmese government, which can be traced back to clashing political positions held during World War II. The tensions escalated in 1982 after the Rohingya people lost their citizenship rights and privileges.

In 2012, a riot between Muslims and Buddhists erupted in Rakhine, a state in Myanmar. Since then, the Rohingya people began to suffer gross human rights violations that caused more than 700,000 to flee from the state in 2017 alone. Those who remained in Rakhine suffered from systemic abuses that are crimes against humanity, such as persecution, apartheid, deprivation of liberty, and genocide.

The Rohingya people who remain in Myanmar are confined in villages and camps without freedom of movement and access to adequate food, livelihoods, education, and health care. They are subjected to forced labour, confiscation of land, and eviction, among other abuses. The Burmese military is reportedly displaced, detained arbitrarily, tortured, and killed hundreds and thousands of ethnic people, including children.

A Renewed Call to Rescue Stranded Maritime Refugees in Southeast Asia

Several years after the riot in Rakhine erupted, the Rohingya people continued to face violence and persecution and suffered severe limitations for their fundamental human rights in Myanmar. For this reason, many also continue to journey through the Andaman Sea to seek refuge in other Southeast Asian countries despite serious risks and threats against their lives.

Last month (December 2022), concerns arose for a group of at least 160 Rohingya people who got stuck on board a damaged boat in the Andaman Sea about a month after leaving Bangladesh in an attempt to seek sanctuary in Malaysia. The boat is said to have been filled with women and children. In a statement by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), appeals to regional governments were made for the immediate search and rescue operation for the boat after weeks of alleged inaction.

According to reports, the boat set off from Bangladesh in late November. On December 1, the boat’s engine failed and was adrift. On December 18, a satellite phone call between the boat’s captain and a Rohingya activist was recorded. The captain revealed that many people on board were already dying due to starvation.

On December 25, dozens of weak and hungry Rohingya refugees, who belonged to the group, were found on Indrapatra beach in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh. Some were rushed to a health clinic for medical care due to dehydration, while others received various medical treatments.

Inevitably, this shocking incident has given rise to a renewed call for help to alleviate the conditions of the Rohingya people, who continue to risk their lives on dangerous maritime journeys just to escape the violence and persecution they continue to face in their country of origin. Specifically, it has led the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to warn that a dramatic increase in the number of refugees attempting hazardous crossings of the Andaman Sea is inevitable if governments and international organisations continue their inaction.


Problems regarding maritime refugees have been ongoing in Southeast Asia for years. As the Rohingya people continue to suffer gross human rights violations in Myanmar, it is to be expected that more of them will not hesitate to risk their lives in the Andaman Sea just to search for better living conditions in other countries.

As such, governments and international organisations must increase their efforts to help these people escape violence and persecution safely and humanely. Furthermore, maritime news in Singapore and other leading Southeast Asian countries needs to pick up and highlight these stories more to increase the world’s awareness of the Rohingya situation. After all, these years of human rights crisis are increasingly becoming a maritime problem in the region.





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