Fleeing To Survive

Driven by desperation and hope, they flee their homes in search of a better life. But in their quest for freedom from persecution, poverty and war, refugees undertake perilous journeys fraught with extreme danger and despair.

This special report by The Straits Times Foreign Desk traces the treacherous paths of the migrants. It also takes an in-depth look at destination countries that grapple with the influx at their borders.

South-east Asia

Since 2014, some 95,000 people - most of them Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar - have made the dangerous journey in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and even Australia. More than 1,100 of them have died at sea and hundreds more have been found buried in unmarked mass graves, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Faces Of The Crisis

These migrants tell the Straits Times their stories of survival and heartbreak.

Buddhist-Muslim couple flee intimidation in Myanmar for a new life

He said we would go to Thailand on ship with 10 levels, and there would be three persons to every cabin.
, on promises made by a human smuggler for his boat trip to Thailand
Mr Abdul Islam and his wife Asimah with their son Shahid (not their real names*) in Bangkok, Thailand. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

When Mr Abdul Islam arrived at the port in Bangladesh, the "ship" was nothing like what the human smuggler who charged Mr Abdul 60,000 baht (S$2,350) had described.

There were nearly 600 people crammed into the three-tier boat, with just enough space for each passenger to sit on his haunches, with knees up to his chest.

Many passengers defecated where they sat, into any receptacle they could find. "I cried a lot," said Mr Abdul. "I thought that I would die before I arrived."

image background

Mr Abdul is a Rohingya Muslim married to Ms Asimah, a Buddhist shopkeeper who lived in a village next to his in Myanmar.

In a region riven by ethnic and religious tension, their union was not just rare, but downright dangerous.

The journey of Mr Abdul Islam, Ms Asimah and son
access broadband
Undocumented migrants in Thailand, wary of being arrested by immigration police

I threw bodies into the sea, says man who survived 21 days on boat

If every religion is included, I will go back, inshallah (God willing).
, who hopes to return one day to Myanmar if conditions improve
Mr Mohamad Rayas speaking with Malaysia correspondent, Eunice Au about his journey from Myanmar to Malaysia. ST PHOTO: EUNICE AU

Mr Mohamad Rayas, 27, first fled to Bangladesh from Maungdaw in Myanmar to escape from indiscriminate arrests and beatings.

He then travelled on a fishing boat for 21 days with 178 other refugees and reached Thailand.

"The ocean not so good, rough seas. No sleeping on the boat, only 20 could sleep (at one time) and others pray for Allah to save our Rohingya," said Mr Rayas.

image background

Thirty refugees died during the journey. Mr Rayas even assisted in throwing some of the bodies overboard.

Having to endure extreme hunger and the constant cries of others, he could not help but worry that he himself might not survive the ordeal.

The journey of Mr Mohamad Rayas
access broadband
Holder of refugee card in Malaysia but harbours hopes of going back one day

Trapped in Indonesia refugee camp for years after failing to reach Australia

How much longer would we wait here? If they don't want to relocate us to another country, then they should let us be an Indonesian citizen.
, who has been stuck in Medan, Indonesia, for more than five years
Mr Abdul Rahim (in striped shirt) talks to fellow refugees in a camp in Medan, North Sumatra. ST PHOTO: WAHYUDI SOERIAATMADJA

Mr Abdul Rahim, 34, thought he had chosen the perfect time to plan his boat journey to Australia with his family about four years ago.

After five days at sea, their boat reached Australian waters. But the engine failed as they struggled to make their way closer to Christmas island. The boat was pushed back to Indonesia.

image background

Since then, Mr Rahim and his family have lived in Surabaya in East Java province.

In Indonesia, the Rohingya are issued a UNHCR card and receive monthly stipends, but they are not allowed to work. And if they are married to a local, like Mr Abdul is, the right to this stipend is waived.

The journey of Mr Abdul Rahim and family
access broadband
Waiting for relocation from Indonesia to a third country

Still no hope in Myanmar's Rakhine state, say parents of refugees

There are no jobs here, there is nowhere to go. There is no education. So how can these people live here.
, has seven children - five of whom have fled with no plans to return
Mr Kyaw Hla Aung at the entrance to his home near Sittwe, Rakhine state. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Mr Kyaw Hla Aung, 76, is a Rohingya Muslim leader. His house is between a Rohingya village and a camp for internally displaced Rohingya, in a vast area outside Sittwe guarded by police checkpoints.

image background

He has seven children - five of them are abroad and they are not coming back.

One of his children, who lives in Thailand and who spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity, tries to help other refugees and survives largely on donations and payment for translation work.

He has accepted that he may never go back to Sittwe - but he also has no desire to do so.

"We can't, it is difficult, the main problem is the government's policy. I think even the government does not know how to resolve it" he said.

The journey of Mr Kyaw Hla Aung’s son
access broadband
Parents of young migrants. They still live in Myanmar, receiving some or no news from their children who have fled

What's Next?

Despite the perils, refugees will continue to take to the seas, but some countries such as Australia are turning the boats away. Read why.

Rohingya migration will continue in 2016 despite risks: Experts

There are from 800,000 to 1.2 million Rohingya, and you have to assume that a lot of those will come.
, regional director of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)
A series of images taken of local Rohingya people in Rakhine state, Myanmar. PHOTOS: REUTERS

There have been fewer boat people taking to the sea from Myanmar's Rakhine state last winter - but it is difficult to be certain about the coming weeks.

Mr Mohiuddin Mohamad-Yusof, president of the New York-based World Rohingya Organisation, warned that "200,000 Rohingyas may leave Rakhine state in 2016".

Our South-east Asia bureaus speak to experts about what to expect this year as conditions ripen for more Rohingya migrant journeys across the Andaman Sea.


Australia stands firm on hardline policies against asylum seekers

We do have a tough border protection policy, you could say it's a harsh policy, but it has worked
In the first image is Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, followed by 2005 file photos - illegal immigration has long been a major issue in Australia. PHOTOS: AFP, AUSTRALIA IMMIGRATION, THE WEST AUSTRALIAN

Australia has adopted some of the world's toughest policies against migrants in recent years and will not relent despite criticisms over measures such as towing boats back to Indonesia and transferring all arrivals by sea to remote Pacific island detention centres.

The controversial approach has been aimed at preventing the flow of asylum seekers who attempt the risky voyage to Australia from transit camps in Indonesia.

In a heavy-handed approach that has damaged relations between Canberra and Jakarta, the federal government has warned that "any people smuggling boat... will be detected, intercepted and safely removed".

Read more about how Australia is handling its migration issues in this in-depth article.



More than one million refugees and migrants entered the European Union last year, providing the 28-nation bloc with its biggest migration challenge since World War II. Children accounted for a quarter of the number.

Faces Of The Crisis

The Straits Times’ Foreign Desk traces a Syrian man's perilous flight to Germany. His story highlights the dangers a refugee faces. He walked, crawled under barbed wire, was left on a sinking boat with no help, caught by policemen in Macedonia and finally reached Germany with a fake Greek passport.

Syrian man faces death twice in journey to freedom

Even now, I think my life is in danger.
, who fled to Germany from war-torn Syria and was later joined by his family
Syrian migrant Fadi Haddad with his wife Ranya and three daughters in their Frankfurt flat. PHOTO: MARILYN GERLACH

Mr Fadi Haddad, a 39-year-old father of three now lives in Frankfurt, Germany with his family.

But the journey here from conflict-torn Syria was far from easy. It involved seven attempts by sea, land and air.

image background

At one point, he and other refugees were left on a sinking boat to fend for themselves. “I thought I would die, he said.”

The journey of Mr Fadi Haddad, wife and children
access broadband
Received refugee status in Germany

What's Next?

Europe’s leaders have to slow down the immigration pressure not only to safeguard their own power, but also in order to preserve the EU. But there are not many real answers. Read why.

No good solution to Europe’s immigration crisis

Europe’s immigration problem is one which genuinely has no obvious solutions, an emergency which is only containable with partial answers.
, on Europe’s immigration crisis
Many migrants take guided treks from Greece through Macedonia. These are images of some of these migrants journeys with the last images of a migrant child in a camp in northern France. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

Following Europe’s refugee crisis is similar to watching a train crash in slow motion: one can see in detail when the policy first went off the rails, everyone knows that the outcome would be a disaster, but nobody seems able to do anything about it.

Europe has experienced migratory pressures for decades, and usually responded by dealing with the symptoms, rather than its underlying causes.

Our Europe correspondent explains why the continent is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with its migrant crisis.


Source: South-east Asia migration flow patterns from International Organisation for Migration