Sunday, August 20, 2017

Volunteer vessel to monitor for migrants in Andaman Sea

A ship, two rescue boats and a fleet of drones will be deployed in the Andaman Sea on March 3 to comb for migrants and monitor for smuggling vessels – and respond in case of a crisis.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was launched by an American millionaire and entrepreneur in the hopes of preventing migrants and refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempted to cross into Europe.

On February 26, founder Christopher Catrambone announced in Bangkok that the project is now being extended to Southeast Asia. For a minimum of four weeks the crew of MY Phoenix will be on the lookout for Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State being smuggled into Thailand and Malaysia.

“The task of the MY Phoenix will be to observe and analyse irregular movements at sea,” Mr Catrambone said in a statement. “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.”

Since 2012, nearly 200,000 asylum seekers and economic migrants have fled Bangladesh and Rakhine State to embark on a boat journey from the Bay of Bengal to Southern Thailand. The well-worn route is considered three times as deadly as the Mediterranean crossing; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 12 people die for every 1000 who cross.

Last May, amid a crackdown that interrupted the regional smuggling channel, 5000 refugees were abandoned at sea. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia all initially launched pushback policies. More than 70 people are believed to have died before reaching land during the crisis, while others suffered beatings, sexual abuse and malnutrition, the latter resulting in cases of beriberi. With the mantra “no one deserves to die at sea”, the MOAS team aims to avert any repeat crisis this year.

“Rohingya have faced abuses for decades and untold numbers have died at sea,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, which is assisting the MOAS crew in data collection and monitoring efforts. “Until the root causes are addressed in Myanmar, we’re going to see men, women and children risk their lives in perilous journeys at sea.”

The UNHCR believes few Rohingya – who are officially referred to by the Myanmar government as Bengalis – have so far left camps to embark on the perilous voyages this year. But the World Rohingya Association has estimated that an exodus 200,000 strong could be prompted this year in the wake of an election disenfranchisement that saw nationalist politicians mostly hostile to Muslims sweep Rakhine State. The National League for Democracy has so far shown little appetite to address the needs of the state’s Muslim population.

The MOAS team plans to use long-range drones to scour the sea night and day to identify vessels transporting large groups of people above or below deck. Ships in distress will be assisted by rescue boats.

Should the MY Phoenix rescue any migrants, it is unclear where will be able to disembark, as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have previously been unwilling to act as a safe haven. Fortify Rights said in a statement that regional governments had been “engaged” about the project. A MOAS spokesperson said the Phoenix has carried previously up to around 400 refugees.

“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.