UNHCR seeks regional support amid reports of high seas tragedy off Myanmar

News Stories, 13 November 2012

© UNHCR Myanmar
A group of Internally displaced people in Myanmar's Rakhine state. UNHCR has urged the government to address push factors.

GENEVA, November 13 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday called on countries in South-East Asia to keep their borders open to people fleeing Myanmar by sea, following reports of boats sinking in the Bay of Bengal this month with scores of people on board. UNHCR also urged the Myanmar government to address this problem of displacement.

"We are calling on countries in the region to strengthen burden-sharing in the face of this growing humanitarian emergency," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva. "We stand ready to support states in assisting and protecting these individuals," she added.

She said UNHCR was "seriously concerned" at the recent boat tragedies in the Bay of Bengal involving people fleeing insecurity and violence in Myanmar. In the last two weeks, there have been reports of two boats sinking off western Myanmar with an estimated 240 people on board, among them Rohingya 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," Fleming said. .

She said these two incidents marked 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 elsewhere in South-East Asia.

An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people set out into the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar 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," Fleming said.

The already precarious situation in Rakhine state was exacerbated last June and most recently again in October, 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 Rohingya so that they can lead normal lives where they are.

While calling on other states to keep their borders open, UNHCR said it was 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," Fleming stressed.

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