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UNHCR calls for open borders as the Rohingya flee on boats

Briefing Notes, 13 November 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 13 November 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is seriously concerned at recent boat tragedies in the Bay of Bengal involving people fleeing feeling insecurity and violence in Myanmar. We are calling on countries in the region to strengthen burden-sharing in the face of this growing humanitarian emergency.

In the last two weeks, there have been reports of two boats sinking in the Bay of Bengal with an estimated 240 people, among them Rohingyas from Myanmar's Rakhine state. UNHCR cannot confirm the figures as we have no presence near the wreck sites, but available information is that more than 40 people have been rescued from the two boats. There were reports of bodies seen floating in the water.

These two incidents mark an alarming start to the traditional sailing season in the Bay of Bengal, when a mix of asylum seekers and irregular migrants risk their lives on fishing boats in the hope of finding safety and a better life in South-East Asia. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people left from the Bay of Bengal during the previous sailing season from October 2011 to March 2012. There are fears many more could follow in the coming weeks, driven by desperation and hopelessness.

UNHCR is urging the government of Myanmar to take urgent action to address some of the main push-factors especially issues connected with the problem of citizenship and statelessness in relation to the Rohingyas. The already precarious situation in Rakhine state was exacerbated in June and most recently again in October this year when inter-communal violence broke out, killing dozens of people, destroying thousands of homes and displacing more than 110,000 people.

A fragile calm has returned but tensions remain high. In addition to providing urgent humanitarian assistance to both affected communities, the root causes need to be resolved for the Rohingyas so that they can lead normal lives where they are.

In the meantime, UNHCR is calling on governments in the region to keep their borders open to people seeking asylum and international protection from Myanmar. We stand ready to support states in assisting and protecting these individuals.

UNHCR is alarmed by reports of countries either pushing back boats from their shores or helping them on to another country. We are appealing to these governments to uphold their long tradition of providing humanitarian aid to refugees instead of shifting the responsibility to another state.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Bangkok: Vivian Tan, mobile +66 818 270 280
  • In Geneva: Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 557 9106
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