UNHCR concern at reports of shooting involving Rohingya boat people

Briefing Notes, 15 March 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 15 March 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR has asked the Royal Thai Government to verify recent reports that a Rohingya boat was towed out from Thai waters, and that shots were fired during the interception.

UNHCR has met the survivors of a boat incident reported in Phang Nga, southern Thailand, cross-checked their accounts with other sources and established that the incident is the same one reported by boat people who arrived in Aceh, Indonesia on 26 February. UNHCR staff in Indonesia have spoken to some of the 121 arrivals in this group, which includes women and children.

Those interviewed in both countries said that they left their village in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state around 5 February. During the journey lasting three weeks, they ran out of food and water. When intercepted by authorities in Thai waters, they were provided with some assistance and then twice towed from Thai waters out to sea. According to converging accounts, at least three shots were fired during interception, but information is conflicting as to whether these were warning shots or actually aimed at the passengers. Survivors and local fishermen near Phuket said two dead bodies were recovered from the sea, though it was unclear if the cause of death was shooting or drowning.

UNHCR is gravely concerned that people fleeing unrest could have been turned away and exposed to further distress in their search for safety. We are seeking access to such boats intercepted in the high seas.

Following the inter-communal violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state last year, thousands of people have boarded smugglers' boats from the Bay of Bengal to seek safety and stability further south. More than 7,000 people are estimated to have taken this dangerous voyage in the first two months of this year, though the clandestine nature of these movements makes it difficult to know the real scale of the movements.

Amid news reports of boats being pushed back to sea, some boats have arrived on the shores of countries in South-east and South Asia.

Since January, more than 1,800 boat arrivals the vast majority Rohingya from Rakhine state have been accepted on Thai soil and provided assistance in shelters and immigration detention facilities mainly in the south. UNHCR has welcomed the Thai government's decision to provide them with six months of temporary protection while solutions are sought.

In Indonesia's Aceh province, more than 180 presumed Rohingya have arrived so far this year, among them 12 women and 58 children. The youngest is a seven-month-old baby. The local authorities in Aceh are providing medical and other assistance. The International Organization for Migration is providing food and relief supplies. The local community and civil society have also donated food, clothes and sanitary items. UNHCR is interviewing them to assess their protection needs.

In Malaysia, two boats have been picked up in the last week with some 320 people believed to be Rohingya in need of international protection.

In mid-February, a boat with over 30 people was rescued in Sri Lanka, reportedly after some 90 of their fellow passengers had died of starvation and dehydration during the long journey from the Bay of Bengal. The survivors joined another 130 people reportedly originating in Myanmar and Bangladesh who had arrived in Sri Lanka earlier this year.

UNHCR is appealing to all States in the region to keep their borders open to people fleeing persecution. Our offices are ready to support States in assisting and protecting these individuals.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Bangkok, Vivian Tan on mobile: +66 818 270 280
  • In Jakarta: Mitra Salima Suryono on office number: +62 21 391 2888
  • In Geneva, Babar Baloch on mobile: +41 79 557 9106
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Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

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