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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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UNHCR country pages

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

"Living Silence" is a photographic exhibition of one of the world's most enduring refugee crises, by award-winning photographer Saiful Huq Omi.

Bangladesh has hosted refugees for over three decades. Today, 28,000 refugees from Myanmar known as the Rohingya - an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority people - are living in the two official refugee camps in the south-east of Bangladesh. Over half of them are children, many of whom have only ever experienced life in the camps. It is estimated that there are a further 200,000 Rohingya living outside the camps, unable to return to Myanmar where they fear persecution and exploitation.

Like refugees around the world, the Rohingya refugees are survivors. They are living in transience, waiting for the day they can go home in safety and in dignity. Until then, like any other people, they aspire to live a life free from violence and exploitation.

Together with other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR provides shelter, water, primary education and health care to refugees from Myanmar in the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps. UNHCR is also working with governments around the world to resettle some of the most vulnerable.

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

Climate change and displacement

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