GENEVA, February 21 (UNHCR) – UNHCR on Friday said it was concerned about the growing number of people dying in the Bay of Bengal after setting out by boat in search of safety and better lives in other countries, including desperate ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar. The refugee agency called on regional governments to do more to prevent further tragedy on the high seas.
UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic, talking to journalists in Geneva, several thousand people were believed to have boarded smugglers' boats in the Bay of Bengal since the beginning of the year, among them Rohingya from Myanmar's 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," Mahecic said.
He added that while UNHCR was 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 last weekend 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. UNHCR is seeking independent access to the survivors to assess their situation and needs.
Mahecic said UNHCR was greatly saddened by this latest terrible ordeal, and commended the quick action of the Sri Lankan navy in rescuing this group and providing immediate medical attention.
Violence in western Myanmar's Rakhine state first erupted last June between different communities there. Some 115,000 people – the majority of them Rohingya – have since been uprooted. Most continue to be internally displaced within Rakhine state, but others have resorted to smugglers to help them flee their country.
About 1,700 people have arrived in recent months on the southern coast of Thailand, where the 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.
Mahecic said that UNHCR recognized 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," he stressed, adding that "UNHCR offers its expertise and good offices to play a constructive role in this process."
The spokesman noted that repeated tragedies at sea also demonstrated 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," said Mahecic.
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 and to offer assistance and protection until 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.