- Migration in Asia: Context in Brief
Migration in Asia is dynamic, diverse, and complex. It is characterized intra- and extra-regional migration, by land, sea and air, as well as South-North and South-South migration patterns. People on the move including migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and internally displaced populations, as well as short term visitors for business and travel. Forty-two percent of migrants in Asia in 2020 were women and 18 percent were under the age of 18. Given the region’s various geophysical conditions, significant disparities in levels of socioeconomic development and security factors, migration drivers can be varied, ranging from persistent economic inequality, demography, conflict, to the environmental impacts of climate change. Owing to limited legal pathways to migration, many people migrate irregularly, without the documentation required by the states to which they are migrating to or through. As a consequence, migrants are often vulnerable to dangers, even including death, along their sometimes-perilous journeys. The information here focuses on such mixed migration routes that are known to be risky to people on the move since 2014, and thus relevant to the Missing Migrants Project.
Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea
Dangers have been associated with mixed maritime movements from the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea towards South-East Asia since at least 2015, when thousands of stateless Rohingyas1 and Bangladeshi economic migrants fled persecution and poverty in search of a better life. In the absence of regular migration options – financial and/or political – people migrating on this route often rely on smugglers for their mobility. After paying smugglers, migrants are often packed in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats for weeks or months, without enough food and water. Beating by crew members and fighting over dwindling supplies are not uncommon and sexual and gender-based violence are also prevalent. Disembarkation opportunities in countries of transit and destination along this route are restricted, with many boats carrying migrants reported to have been denied entry by authorities. Over the past five years, there have been discoveries of camps in the jungle along the Thai-Malaysia border run by smugglers and organized trafficking networks, where migrants and refugees have been held captive for ransom before being granted onwards passage. People whose families could not pay off ransom demands, have been tortured, killed, or exploited for labour. Smugglers and traffickers seeking to avoid punishment by authorities have reportedly held migrants in offshore camps or adrift on the open sea.
Sea crossing to Australia
Maritime migration to Australia has been another major route used by migrants and refugees. Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Iraq were primary countries of origin, while Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pacific Island countries including Fiji, Palau, Guam and Micronesia served as key transit points. After an Australian border protection policy was implemented in 2013, there have been no known boat arrivals to Australia since 2015, with the number of “boat turn backs” by authorities not publicly known. It is worth considering that for some, the sea crossing to Australia was only part of their journey, and therefore, those who cannot continue may be stuck in the situations of limbo in the transit countries where they have irregular status and have little to no access to public services such as health care and education. Such situations leave migrants vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, as well as detention, deportation and trafficking.
Overland migration routes
People migrating overland is also significant in Asia. Some of the principal routes are in South-East Asia – from countries in the Mekong Subregion to Thailand and Malaysia and in South Asia – from Nepal to India. Through South Asia towards Europe, migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan pass through the Islamic Republic of Iran and into Turkey. Many migrants also use a combination of air, sea and land-based migration methods during their journeys. These routes can put people in extremely vulnerable situations, in which they lack of food, water and medicine, and face environmental hazards, physical and sexual violence, human trafficking, and vehicle accidents, depending on the border being crossed and the smuggling method used.
- Overview of migrant deaths in Asia
Since 2014, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded over 3,000 migrant deaths and disappearances of people during their migration journeys in Asia, with deaths at sea as the largest category recorded.
The majority of deaths recorded on migratory routes in Asia have been Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants trying to reach safety and better opportunities on sea migration routes to other countries.2 More than 1,500 have been recorded dead or missing in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea between 2014 and 2019, although the exact number of deaths is unknown. The primary causes of death included starvation, dehydration, sickness, drowning, or physical assault by smugglers or traffickers, or as a result of fights on board ships. Other parts of this journey are no less perilous. There are several reports of deaths as a result of shooting, landmine explosions and drownings in an attempt to cross the border from Rakhine State, in Myanmar into Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. The onward journey – by boat across the Bay of Bengal can also be hazardous, with the remains of nearly 200 -people found in mass graves in jungle camps on both sides of the Thai-Malaysia border in 2015, the majority of whom are believed to be of women and children. The presumed causes of deaths included starvation and illness while being held hostage by smugglers and traffickers.
The collected data also indicate that vehicle-related accidents are among the common causes of death during migration in Asia, particularly in South-East Asia and South Asia. According to records collected by Missing Migrants Project, between 2014 and 2019, there were at least 100 people who died in car crashes in the course of migrating in Thailand, and nearly 200 died in vehicle accidents while attempting to cross the borders between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In South Asia, violence has been the second most recorded cause of death during migration, especially at the border between Pakistan and Islamic Republic of Iran. This includes being shot, abused and killed.
- Data collection and challenges
It is a challenge to collect data on migrant deaths and disappearances during migration in Asia. Irregular migration often takes place in unpatrolled areas, which means that many migrants likely disappear without a trace at sea or in remote land settings. Migration patterns including irregular border crossings by land and sea, as well as migration in conflict settings make reliable data collection complex. It is challenging for people on the move to report deaths and disappearances in the context of conflict or irregular residence status. The presence of international actors and journalists, who may report on such incidents, in conflict settings is also severely limited, so it is challenging to distinguish between deaths during migration and conflict-related deaths.
In most of Asia,3 there is currently no systematic data collection on migrant deaths and disappearances during migration; as such, the Missing Migrants Project data in Asia relies heavily on media and information collected by organizations working on specific populations of interest. Usually, little to no information is known about those who perished, including minimum basic information such as sex and age. It is very likely that the true number of migrant deaths in Asia is grossly underreported, and is biased towards high-profile incidents or specific geographical areas.
Data on migration context in Asia and the Pacific
IOM (2019), Chapter 3 – Migration and migrants: Regional dimensions and developments. World Migration Report 2020. 68-83.
Regional Thematic Working Group on International Migration including Human Trafficking (2008), Situation Report on International Migration in East and South-East Asia
IOM (2020), Asia and the Pacific Regional Strategy 2020-2024
UNODC (2018), Migrant Smuggling in Asia and the Pacific: Current Trends and Challenges Volume II
Mixed Migration Centre: Asia
Data on the migration in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea
UNHCR (2020), Abandoned at Sea: the Desperate Journeys of Rohingya Refugees
Newland, K. (2015), Irregular Maritime Migration in the Bay of Bengal: The Challenges of Protection, Management and Cooperation
Human Rights Watch: Rohingya
Black, J., Dearden, K., Singleton, A. and F. Laczko (2020). Chapter 1: Global Overview of the Available Data on Migrant Deaths and Disappearances. Fatal Journey 3 Part 1: Improving Data on Missing Migrants, 13-14.
Pickering, S. and Powell, R. (2017). Chapter 3: Asia-Pacific. Fatal Journeys Volumn 3 Part 2: Improving Data on Missing Migrants, 45-70.
Dearden, K. and M. Sánchez Dionis (2019). Chapter 1: Missing Migrants Project Data: A Global Overview. Fatal Journey Volume 4, 21-27.
Stoakes, E. and Kelly, C. (2015, May 28). Asian refugee crisis: trafficked migrants held off Thailand in vast 'camp boats'. The Guardian.
Suza Uddin, A S M., and P. McPherson. (2020, June 15). Traffickers demand payments for Rohingya stranded at sea. Reuters.
Migration data portal – data on Asia
IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix