UNHCR calls for urgent action to prevent Rohingya boat tragedies

Briefing Notes, 22 February 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 22 February 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is concerned about a rising numbers of deaths in the Indian Ocean involving people fleeing their countries for safety and better lives elsewhere. This includes many Rohingya from Myanmar.

Already in 2013, several thousand people are believed to have boarded smuggler's boats in the Bay of Bengal, among them Rohingya from Rakhine state or from Bangladesh's refugee camps and makeshift sites. Most are men, but there are also increasing reports of women and children on these often-rickety boats making the journey southwards. We estimate that of the 13,000 people who left on smugglers' boats in 2012, close to 500 died at sea when their boats broke down or capsized. While UNHCR is still gathering data from 2012 on deaths at sea, it is clear that the Indian Ocean has become for people fleeing their countries one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world.

In the latest incident, only a week ago, some 90 people believed to be Rohingya are said to have died of dehydration and starvation during a journey that lasted almost two months. More than 30 survivors were rescued from this vessel last weekend by the Sri Lankan navy off Sri Lanka's east coast. Earlier in February, around 130 people reportedly originating from Myanmar and Bangladesh were also rescued at sea by the Sri Lankan navy. We are seeking independent access to the survivors to assess their situation and needs.

UNHCR is greatly saddened by this latest terrible ordeal, and commends the quick action of the Sri Lankan navy in rescuing this group and providing immediate medical attention. UNHCR is ready to support the Sri Lankan authorities in assisting any among them who are in need of international protection.

Violence in western Myanmar's Rakhine state erupted last June between different communities there. Since then some 115,000 people the majority of them Rohingya have been uprooted. Most continue to be internally displaced within Rakhine state, but others have resorted to smugglers to flee their country.

About 1,700 people have arrived in recent months on the southern coast of Thailand, where the Royal Thai Government has granted them six months of temporary protection until solutions can be found. UNHCR teams are talking to the men, who are held in detention facilities, and to the women and children who are in government-run shelters, to assess their situations.

In addition to those who have landed in Thailand, an estimated 1,800 people have arrived in Malaysia since the start of the year. When notified, UNHCR intervenes to secure their release from detention and seeks access to assess their protection needs.

UNHCR recognizes the regional dimension of the irregular movements of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants by sea. Genuine cooperative regional approaches that promote sharing of burdens and responsibility could offer asylum seekers and refugees an alternative to dangerous and exploitative boat journeys. UNHCR offers its expertise and good offices to play a constructive role in this process.

Repeated tragedies at sea also demonstrate the need for a coordinated regional response to distress and rescue at sea. We urge States to agree protocols for the safe and quick disembarkation of rescued passengers and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance. Mechanisms must be in place to assess the needs of and solutions for different groups, including access to UNHCR for those in need of international protection.

To help move this process forward, UNHCR is facilitating discussions between interested governments and international organizations at a regional meeting on irregular movements by sea to be held in Jakarta in March.

Amid continuing news reports of boats being pushed back to sea by some countries, UNHCR also urges States in the region to keep their borders open to people in need of international protection, to uphold the principle of non-refoulement and to offer them temporary assistance and protection until durable solutions can be found.

In parallel, UNHCR has been advocating with the Myanmar government to urgently address the root causes of the outflow. The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar and face many restrictions in their daily lives in Rakhine state. To resolve the problem, we encourage the government to commit to promoting reconciliation and peaceful co-existence as well as economic development in Rakhine state, pursue practical measures to ensure basic rights so that the Rohingya can lead normal lives where they are, and eventually grant them access to citizenship.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva: Babar Baloch on +41 79 557 9106
  • Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 91 20
  • Andrej Mahecic on mobile +41 79 200 7617



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