Boatloads of Migrants Could Soon Be ‘Floating Graveyard’ on Southeast Asian Waters

This photo, taken in 2012, shows desperate Rohingya refugees from Myanmar attempting to get past border patrol guards in Bangladesh. Now, in 2015, a fresh exodus of mainly Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh has the international community on edge. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

This photo, taken in 2012, shows desperate Rohingya refugees from Myanmar attempting to get past border patrol guards in Bangladesh. Now, in 2015, a fresh exodus of mainly Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh has the international community on edge. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

By Kanya D’Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, May 16 2015 (IPS)

On Thursday, May 14, a group of journalists rented a boat from Ko Lipe, a small island in Thailand’s southwest Satun Province, and headed out into the Andaman Sea – a water body in the northeastern Indian Ocean bounded by Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca.

Ten miles into the journey, they came upon a sight not often spied in these waters: a three-storey, rickety wooden vessel, filled with ragged men, women and children who, upon seeing the boatload of journalists, began crying out for help.

“We don’t have a flotilla to go out and help them, but there are plenty of countries in the region that do, and plenty of reasons for them to do it – if they don’t, they’ll be dealing with a floating graveyard soon, rather than a flotilla of ships.” — Leonard Doyle, director of media and communications for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)
This ship and its desperate human cargo – hundreds of migrants from the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar and Bangladesh – now symbolizes the plight of a persecuted people, and the harsh migration policies of a handful of Southeast Asian countries that have resulted in a game of ‘maritime Ping-Pong’ played out with human lives.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), smugglers abandoned the ship and its passengers after failing to dock in Thailand as a result of that country’s harsh crackdown on what it calls “illegal” maritime arrivals, but what rights activists say are beleaguered citizens fleeing ethnic persecution and economic hardship in their native lands.

Earlier, the boat made a failed attempt to land in Malaysia, and on Friday Thai authorities moved the vessel further out to sea, claiming that its passengers wanted to carry on with their journey – an unlikely scenario given that the emaciated group of refugees have been out at sea for three months, and have little to no food or water left onboard.

A regional crisis

And they are not the only ones – the IOM estimates that some 6,000 people out of roughly 8,000 who have been out at sea since early March remain marooned off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

These countries, all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have taken an uneven approach to the refugee crisis: the IOM says some 1,500 people have managed to disembark in Malaysia and Indonesia, while thousands of others have been turned away, with the navies of each respective country going so far as to tow some of the boats further out to see.

A statement issued through the spokesperson of the United Nations Secretary-General Thursday called on governments in the region to respond to the crisis by upholding international obligations, including the prohibition on ‘refoulement’ – the forcible return of persecuted individuals to their country of origin.

The U.N. chief also asked governments to “facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need.”

However, these requests have so far gone unheeded.

Alarmed by the plight of those stranded out at sea, the IOM on Friday released one million dollars from its Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism, with the aim of expanding relief to refugees on shore and assisting those still on the water.

While the fund will provide potentially life-saving emergency aid to hundreds of people, “it’s really up to countries nearby to respond,” IOM Director of Media and Communications Leonard Doyle told IPS.

He said the emergency funds will be used to provide desperate migrants with whatever they might need, but they have to be brought ashore first.

“We don’t have a flotilla to go out and help them, but there are plenty of countries in the region that do, and plenty of reasons for them to do it – if they don’t, they’ll be dealing with a floating graveyard soon, rather than a flotilla of ships,” he stressed.

At the very least, he said, powerful emerging countries within range of the crisis should use their naval capacity to bring those needing medical attention ashore – it is believed that pregnant women are among the migrants still drifting well within reach of land – but no government has so far demonstrated a willingness to do so.

Risking death to flee their homes

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that about 25,000 people “departed irregularly by sea” from the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015 – double the departure rate for the two preceding years.

The U.N. agency also says an estimated 300 people have died out at sea since October 2014, from starvation, dehydration or after being beaten severely by boat crews.

Hailing largely from Bangladesh and Myanmar, passengers pay between 90 and 370 dollars to board these ships, in addition to the thousands of dollars they might pay moneylenders in interest rates, or to immigration officials for their freedom once they land on safer shores.

The sudden spike in departures could be driven by a number of factors, not least of which the harsh conditions in IDP camps in Myanmar where over 140,000 refugees, the majority of whom identify as Rohingya Muslims, have been interned since inter-communal violence in the country’s western Rakhine State displaced them from their homes nearly three years ago.

Other reasons for the exodus include economic hardships, or ethnic persecution, the U.N. says.

That so many are willing to risk death by drowning for a mere chance of a better life speaks volumes of their plight in their home countries.

An IOM statement released Friday explained, “In the past three years, an estimated 160,000 migrants from the coasts of Myanmar and Bangladesh were smuggled by boat to Thailand before being brought overland to Malaysia.”

But the discovery in early May of mass graves in smuggling camps drove a major crackdown on migrants in both countries, resulting in the current regional stalemate.

These and other issues are expected to be the focus of a regional summit scheduled to take place later this month, which U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon called an opportunity “for all leaders of Southeast Asia to intensify individual and collective efforts to address this worrying situation and tackle the root causes, of which the push factors are often human rights violations.”

Others believe that such a settlement, if it comes at all, will come too late.

“These people are not going to last that long,” IOM’s Doyle told IPS. “They need to be rescued now and that’s what we’ve been calling for. As you can imagine, one day out on a boat is enough, but these people have been out there for [months]… This is shocking, really shocking treatment of human beings.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Murders of Gays Raise the Question of Hate Crimes in Cuba

“Homosexuality Isn’t a Danger; Homophobia Is” reads a sign held by an activist from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community during a demonstration in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Homosexuality Isn’t a Danger; Homophobia Is” reads a sign held by an activist from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community during a demonstration in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, May 16 2015 (IPS)

During the events surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba, it emerged that a young transsexual had recently been killed in the city of Pinar del Río near the western tip of this Caribbean island nation.

While efforts to combat discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBT) are stepped up in Cuba, this segment of the population remains vulnerable to harassment and violence – and even death.

The Apr. 26 murder of Yosvani Muñoz, 24, which is under investigation, as the legal advice office of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) confirmed to IPS, raised questions about a sensitive and little-known issue in Cuba: hate crimes.

IPS asked experts and members of the LBGT community about the causes of killings of “men who have sex with men” (MSM), of which no official statistics have been published, but which have been reported periodically since 2013 by word of mouth, or in blogs or alternative media outlets.

Hate crimes include verbal abuse, threats, physical assaults and homicides motivated by prejudice based on questions like sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnic group or religion.

“We are fighting hate crimes together with the Interior Ministry (which the police answers to),” CENESEX director Mariela Castro said in exclusive comments to IPS. Castro is the most visible face of the national campaign in favour of freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“A thorough expert analysis is needed to determine what kind of killing it was because not all crimes involving LGBT persons as victims are motivated by hatred,” Castro, a sexologist, explained during the May 5-16 events surrounding the Day Against Homophobia.

With a big Cuban flag and smaller rainbow flags representing gay pride, LGBT persons participate in one of the events in Havana surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

With a big Cuban flag and smaller rainbow flags representing gay pride, LGBT persons participate in one of the events in Havana surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In Havana and the eastern province of Las Tunas, this year’s activities, focused on the right to work, had the support for the first time of Cuba’s trade union federation Central de Trabajadores de Cuba and the blessing of protestant pastors for more than 30 gay and lesbian couples.

The activities involved a festive conga line and demonstration with signs and banners, video clips, and debates on the rights of LGBT persons to information, freedom of thought, access to justice, personal safety, and violence-free lives.

The situation in Latin America

In Latin America only Uruguay specifically mentions hate crimes in its legislation, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico have laws against discrimination that take into account aggravating circumstances in certain crimes, and some Brazilian states have anti-discrimination clauses in their local constitutions.

Because of the lack of official figures, non-governmental organisations compile information that is not systematised.

The Centre for AIDS Education and Prevention in Nicaragua documented some 300 hate crimes against the LGBT population, especially trans women, in Central America from 2009 to 2013. In Mexico and Brazil the number of crimes targeting this population group is high.

In Cuba, the Ibero-American and African Masculinity Network is the only organisation that has published the results of investigations, without explaining the methods used to compile the information. It reported that in 2013 it heard about “more than 40 murders of homosexuals” killed in the same circumstances as the cultural figures Velázquez and Díaz.

They preceded the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is observed on May 17 because on that date in 1990, the World Health Organisation (WHO) general assembly removed homosexuality from the global body’s list of mental disorders.

Castro said “theft and common crime are more frequent aspects in murders of homosexuals, according to the data presented to us by the DGICO (criminal investigation bureau),” which receives advice from and collaborates with CENESEX.

“There might be a hate crime murder once in a while, but they are very few,” she said.

The sexologist added, however, that “the number of hate crimes is not completely clear because of the lack of a specialised institution dedicated to classifying them….and this classification is important because the old term ‘crime of passion’ hides gender violence, violence between men, and violence between couples.”

Violent crime is generally surrounded by silence in this island nation of 11.2 million people, and killings of LGBT individuals are no exception. The 1987 penal code does not specifically recognise hate crimes, or sexual orientation and gender identity as aggravating circumstances in murders.

The law provides for sentences of 15 to 30 years in cases of homicide, and the death penalty is still on the books, although it has not been applied since 2003.

“MSM are at greater risk of being killed than women,” Castro said, citing the results of DGICO investigations regarding a category of men that includes gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

“Part of the gay population does not perceive the danger when they irresponsibly choose sexual partners, without information,” she said. “They seek out young men who work as prostitutes, some of whom are criminals and try to rob them, and even kill when they defend themselves.”

Along with its work raising awareness to prevent HIV/AIDS, CENESEX warns of other risks posed by irresponsible sexual practices in gay meeting and recreational places or community social networks.

Oneida Paz, a 59-year-old manager, has not heard of murders or rapes of lesbians, a population group she belongs to. “Violence among women can exist, but it’s not common,” she said. “I do have friends who have been injured, because they were married to men who beat them when they got into a relationship with another woman.”

CENESEX said the number of murders of MSM in 2013 and 2014 was high. At that time the issue came to the forefront because of the deaths of two high-profile openly gay cultural figures, who died in strange circumstances, according to activists.

The local media, which is entirely state-owned, gave ample coverage to the violent deaths of choreographer Alfredo Velázquez, 44, in September 2013 in the eastern city of Guantánamo, and theatre director Tony Díaz, 69, found dead in his Havana home in January 2014. But they only mentioned their careers in the arts.

“I haven’t seen statistics and I’m no expert, but the murders I know about were ruthless. We’re killed for some reason, like theft or vengeance, but also because we’re gay,” said Leonel Bárzaga, a 33-year-old chemical engineer who told IPS about the murder of his friend Marcel Rodríguez.

Rodríguez, a 28-year-old gay professional, was stabbed 12 times on Jan. 6 in his central Havana home. “The police haven’t shared the results of their investigation yet,” said Bárzaga, who preferred not to discuss the specific motives for the murder.

Veterinarian Manuel Hernández, 41, said “I haven’t heard of murders of gays. But verbal attacks are definitely common in small towns, and in the workplace there’s a lot of discrimination,” above all in the rural town where he lives, Quivicán, 45 km south of Havana.

“It wouldn’t be crazy to talk about ‘hate crimes’ against LGBT persons in Cuba,” said Jorge Carrasco, a journalist who investigated gay gathering places in the capital in 2013. “That’s a term used by the Cuban police, in fact, and it’s not a product of paranoia. But I know as little about them as any other Cuban.”

Based on his interviews conducted in lonely outlying parts of the city, like the Playa del Chivo, a beach frequented by MSM to talk, arrange meetings and have sex with strangers, Carrasco explained by email that “many criminals go to those places to steal, and there have been murders. That’s why the police patrol them.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes