Southeast Asia: Migrant and refugee situation - latest developments

Refugees and Migrants

Published: 22 May 2015

Members will be aware of the tragic refugee situation in Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean and below you will find the latest update from The Norwegian Shipowners' Association. In the security update you will also find a link to suggested guidelines for large scale SAR operations which we consider to be very instructive.


In the first quarter of 2015, UNHCR reports that some 25.000 people have set out on the journey from the Bay of Bengal towards the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait. This is a doubling from the first quarter of 2014.

Although more people have set out at sea this year, it is not a new phenomenon. In 2014, 54.000 people made the same journey and an estimated 540 died. IOM and UNHCR say that 300 have died so far this year. Most of those departing do so from the Bangladesh/Myanmar maritime border and are headed for Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. It is estimated that about 40 to 60% of the migrants stem from the Rakhine district in Myanmar, the remaining come from Bangladesh.

Please find the full UNHCR report for 2014 here and the one for the first quarter of 2015 here.

Initial push-back of migrants, new developments

There have been several reports that thousands of migrants are stranded at sea due to the push backs of the migrant boats by Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia and there were concerns that the countries would continue to maintain this stance. 

However, in a meeting held between the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand on 20 May 2015, it was determined that the countries "will continue to uphold their responsibilities and obligations under international law and in accordance with their respective domestic laws, including the provision of humanitarian assistance to the irregular migrants".

Malaysia and Indonesia have committed to provide humanitarian assistance to those drifting at sea. The Malaysian Prime Minister has instructed the country’s Coast Guard and Navy to conduct search and rescue of the migrants. Thailand has also made similar statements. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that the country will no longer push back the migrant boats.

All three countries have called for action to stop the boats setting out at sea and to tackle the human smuggling networks.

Advice for vessels in the area

So far there have been no reports of international commercial vessels having taken part in any rescue operations in this area. However, there is a possibility that a vessel could encounter refugees if it is operating in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea or passing through the Malacca Strait.

NSA has devised a set of suggested guidelines for large scale SAR operations. These can be found here. The guidelines are targeted at the situation in the Mediterranean but can also be used for this region. If migrants are embarked, the relevant SAR region authority should be notified immediately and a swift disembarkation of the migrants is advised.

The Association is grateful to The Norwegian Shipowners' Association for contributing to this update.