A new UN report points to a sharp increase in numbers of boat people mostly from Bangladesh and Myanmar, also known as Burma.
According to the report by the UN High Commission for Refugees says from June 2013 to June 2014 more than 53,000 people have fled by sea from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border region, an increase of 60% from the previous year.
“More than 20,000 boat people fled in the first six months of this year, headed toward the Malaysia-Thailand border or on to Indonesia and Australia.”
UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler made the disclosure at the press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Friday.
The UNHCR report has found that more people are risking their lives on smugglers' boats in South-East Asia despite the prospect of horrific violence en route.
UNHCR estimates that 54,000 people have undertaken irregular maritime journeys in the region so far this year, based on reports by local sources, media and people who survived the journey.
This includes some 53,000 people leaving from the Bay of Bengal towards Thailand and Malaysia, and hundreds of others moving further south in the Indian Ocean.
An estimated 540 people have reportedly died this year at sea from such beatings, starvation or dehydration, and their bodies thrown overboard.
The outflow from the Bay of Bengal tends to peak in October, when calmer waters follow the end of the rainy season.
Departures this October surged more than in previous years. Some 21,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have set sail since then, a 37% increase over the same period last year.
About 10% are believed to be women. Roughly one-third of arrivals interviewed by the UNHCR in Thailand and Malaysia were minors under 18 years of age.
Children as young as eight years old are known to have made the journey alone.
In total some 120,000 people are believed to have embarked on these voyages in the Bay of Bengal since the start of 2012.
Children as young as eight years old are known to have made the journey alone
With payments ranging from US$1,600 to US$2,400 demanded for each passenger, smugglers plying this route are believed to have generated nearly US$250 million in revenue in the last three years.
While the majority of people paid smugglers for the journey, there were isolated accounts of people who said they were forced onto boats, sometimes at gunpoint, in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
UNHCR staff met two Rohingya boys in Malaysia who said they were kidnapped off the street in northern Rakhine state in late September and forced onto boats.
Conditions on the smugglers' boats were dire. Survivors consistently described overcrowded conditions and daily rations of one sparse meal and one to two cups of water. People who asked for more or tried to use the toilet out of turn were beaten with belts or kicked down ladders by the armed crew on the deck above.
Survivors told the UNHCR staff that they were ferried from the big boats on smaller boats to Thailand. There they were held in smugglers' camps and made to call relatives to pay for their release.
When payment was not immediate, they were beaten or subjected to other acts of torture. A large number of survivors were able to show signs of serious mistreatment on their body.
Since last year, hundreds of people are alleged to have died in the camps from illness, starvation, dehydration and killings by smugglers when they tried to escape or could not pay.
Most arrivals in Malaysia crossed by land from Thailand and were kept in holding houses in northern Malaysia, usually for a few days.
Two-way boat traffic continued between Indonesia and Malaysia, with some Rohingya moving to Indonesia after spending some time in Malaysia. More than 100 Rohingya were registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia this year.
In 2014, there were 10 known interceptions of boats carrying 441 people hoping to reach Australia. Seven boats with 205 people were returned to Indonesia.
All but one of 79 passengers on two boats were returned to Sri Lanka. Separately 157 people on a boat from India were transferred from the Australian mainland to an offshore processing centre in Nauru, where they remain detained.
Of the more than 6,500 people of concern to the UNHCR who travelled by sea and were put in detention in the region, over 4,600 were held in Australia or the offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Committee against Torture recently added their voice to UNHCR's own set of concerns about these practices.