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Irregular Maritime Migration in the Bay of Bengal: The Challenges of Protection, Management, and Cooperation
Policy Briefs
July 2015

Irregular Maritime Migration in the Bay of Bengal: The Challenges of Protection, Management, and Cooperation

In recent decades, maritime migration in Asia has become increasingly contentious, as refugees and irregular migrants traversing the region by sea complicate the attempts of governments in the Asia-Pacific region to control their borders, regulate immigration, and fulfill their obligations under international law. In the spring of 2015, irregular maritime migration across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia entered a period of crisis as a wave of migrants and refugees crossed or attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal to reach Southeast Asia. The discovery in April and May 2015 of smuggler camps on both sides of the Thailand-Malaysia border showed the critical dangers that attend the journey.

At the center of the migration crisis is the exodus of stateless Muslims from western Myanmar (and in some cases, Bangladesh), mingled with Bangladeshi migrants seeking work opportunities in the wealthier countries of the region. Members of the Muslim minority, known as the Rohingya, have suffered extreme poverty and discrimination since the end of British colonial rule and establishment of the modern state of Myanmar. Communal violence between the Rohingya and Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state flared in 2012, resulting in the flight of Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh, where at least 200,000 remain. Tens of thousands of others embarked on irregular maritime journeys from Bay of Bengal ports in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

This MPI-International Organization for Migration (IOM) Issue in Brief attempts to put the crisis of 2015 into context, providing an overview of the routes and patterns of migration, the development of migration out of Myanmar’s Rakhine state over the past few years and how policy responses to it have assigned priority to the protection of migrants and refugees, to the management of the maritime flows and to cooperation on migration with countries in the region and beyond. The brief concludes with several recommendations, and a consideration of what recent history has to teach us about responses to maritime migration crises.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. Irregular Maritime Movements in the Context of Asian Migration

III. Migrants and Asylum Seekers Cross the Bay of Bengal

IV. The International Legal and Institutional Framework in the Region

V. International and Regional Responses and Recommendations