UNHCR fears sea tragedies as sailing season starts in Bay of Bengal

News Stories, 1 November 2013

© UNHCR/S.Kelly
Two displaced boys in Rakhine state play in a river. Daily life is still a struggle for communities like theirs and some people risk their lives at sea in their search for safety and stability.

YANGON, Myanmar, November 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has received worrying reports that more people are setting out to sea on smugglers' boats from the Bay of Bengal in search of a better life free from persecution.

"This could signal the start of the annual sailing season a deadly time when thousands of desperate people from Myanmar's Rakhine state risk their lives on rickety boats to find safety and stability elsewhere," a UNHCR spokesman said Friday.

According to UNHCR's sources, more than 1,500 people boarded boats in northern Rakhine state and headed into the Bay of Bengal over the course of four days last week.

"There have been reports of passengers drowning off the coast of Rakhine state last weekend," the spokesman said, while adding that "UNHCR has been unable to verify the conflicting information so far. We are seeking details from the authorities."

The number of boat departures from the Bay of Bengal has risen dramatically since June 2012, when inter-communal violence erupted in Rakhine state. For the Rohingya in particular, leaving by boat is sometimes the only way for them to flee Myanmar. Without citizenship or valid travel documents, they face difficulties in crossing overland due to a fear of arrest and detention by Myanmar authorities.

It is hard to know the exact number of boat departures due to the clandestine nature of these movements. Unverified reports suggest that from June to December last year, more than 14,000 people left on boats from Myanmar and Bangladesh. They were joined by more than 24,000 people in the first eight months of this year.

The majority are believed to be Rohingya from Rakhine state, with some Bangladeshis among them. More than 400 have died or gone missing while attempting the journey so far this year. Those who survive often land in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, but specific numbers of these irregular arrivals are unknown.

More than a year after the first wave of inter-communal violence erupted in Rakhine state, some 140,000 people remain internally displaced. Muslim communities in northern Rakhine state, especially the Rohingya, struggle with limitations on freedom of movement, access to basic services and livelihood, protection from extortion and forced labour, and are sometimes driven to desperation.

UNHCR fears that with the rainy season almost over and the sailing season about to start, more people could feel compelled to leave by boat, subjecting themselves to exploitation by smugglers.

To stem this outflow, UNHCR believes the Myanmar government and international community need to redouble efforts to promote reconciliation and economic development in Rakhine for the benefit of all communities, and pursue practical measures to ensure basic rights so that the Rohingya can lead normal lives where they are.

In parallel, UNHCR continues to advocate for states in the region to step up actions to prevent such tragedies, in particular by strengthening regional cooperation and ensuring that the humanitarian and protection needs of all people moving irregularly are properly met.

"We believe that countries affected by such movements should adopt a comprehensive, harmonized approach that is underpinned by strengthened coordination and cooperation on search and rescue at sea, interceptions, disembarkation, assistance and identification of outcomes and solutions," the spokesman reiterated.

UNHCR is supporting this approach through various regional initiatives and is encouraged that states have expressed their commitment to cooperation, including at a conference in Indonesia last August. The resulting Jakarta Declaration highlighted the need to strengthen cooperation among affected states to manage irregular maritime movements, including through the development of a protection-sensitive regional approach.




UNHCR country pages

Desperation on the Andaman Sea

For days, they were an undertow, an unseen tide of people adrift in the Andaman Sea. UNHCR and its partners had warned that thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were held captive at sea, then abandoned as their crew fled government crackdowns on smuggling and trafficking networks.

Then a green boat surfaced on TV, packed with emaciated men, crying women and sick children, all dehydrated, hungry and desperate. It gave a face to the problem, then vanished overnight. After five days drifting between the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia, some 400 people on board were finally rescued by Indonesian fishermen in the early hours of May 20.

They are among more than 3,000 lucky ones who have been able to come ashore since May 10 in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where UNHCR is helping to assess their needs. Thousands more could still be stranded at sea. In a welcome statement on May 20, the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to bring these vulnerable people to shore - a move that will hopefully end the long nightmare at sea.

Desperation on the Andaman Sea

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

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