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.

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

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

Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin campPlay video

Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin camp

Conflict in Myanmar's Kachin state has displaced tens of thousands. In the town of Laiza, UNHCR is helping women in Hpun Lum Yang camp to learn tailoring skills as part of a pilot project to foster cohesion among IDP women in the camp and help them find solutions for the practical problems they and their community face.
Myanmar: Olympic Spirit AlivePlay video

Myanmar: Olympic Spirit Alive

The International Olympic Committee and Samsung recently presented sports kits to 20 schools in south-east Myanmar. The lucky children were happy to show off their skills.
By Boat to SafetyPlay video

By Boat to Safety

The recent resurgence in inter-communal violence in western Myanmar, forced hundreds of people to sail to safety on their fishing boats.