Myanmar - ReliefWeb News
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | AFP | Sunday 5/17/2015 - 07:32 GMT
Malaysia said Sunday its foreign minister would meet his Indonesian and Thai counterparts to discuss the influx of boatpeople to Southeast Asia as international pressure grew for a regional solution.
The three nations have sparked outrage by turning away vessels overloaded with migrants from Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya minority and with poor Bangladeshis.
Officials have increasingly pointed the finger at Myanmar and its alleged systematic persecution of Rohingya for fuelling the mass migration.
"Myanmar should deal with the Rohingya community internally instead of forcing it on its (Southeast Asian) neighbours," Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was quoted by local media on Sunday as saying.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman was to host Indonesia's Retno Marsudi in the city of Kota Kinabalu on Borneo island on Monday, a government official said.
That would be followed by separate talks between Anifah and Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn later in the week, most probably on Wednesday.
The official declined further comment but confirmed the meetings were called in response to the migrant crisis.
Earlier, state media said Anifah was to meet in Malaysia on Sunday with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali.
His trip to Malaysia was arranged before the migrant crisis.
"It (boat people) is one of the topics and a very important issue in the agenda," Anifah was quoted as saying in a brief dispatch by official news agency Bernama.
Nearly 3,000 migrants have been rescued or swum ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in recent days, giving grim accounts of people dying at sea of starvation, sickness or drowning when rickety boats sank.
Activists say thousands more are feared to be drifting helplessly at sea after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking disrupted busy migration routes from the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia.
On Saturday Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged Myanmar to help solve what he called a "humanitarian catastrophe".
"Malaysia has played a large part but we are not the source of the problem," Bernama quoted him saying.
Myanmar has previously steadfastly refused to discuss the issue in regional forums. It considers Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denying them citizenship, and disavows responsibility for them.
It has already rejected an invitation from Thailand to attend a May 29 meeting there to address the crisis.
In contrast to the Rohingya, the Bangladeshi boatpeople are believed to be mainly economic migrants seeking to escape their country's grinding poverty.
Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque -- who works under foreign minister Ali -- on Saturday said his country was struggling to contain surging illegal migration through the Bay of Bengal.
He blamed the high numbers of Rohingya fleeing abroad and called for international pressure on Myanmar.
"The Rohingya crisis has been created by Myanmar, which will have to find a solution," Haque said.
© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | AFP | Sunday 5/17/2015 - 03:44 GMT
by Satish Cheney
Southeast Asia's timid diplomacy and a see-no-evil approach to human-trafficking is to blame for its boatpeople influx, and overcoming the crisis will pose a severe test for a region loathe to address divisive issues, diplomats and analysts said.
In particular, the region has allowed the problem to fester by failing to curb Myanmar's systematic abuse of its unwanted Rohingya people, which has sent masses of the Muslim ethnic minority fleeing abroad, they said.
One of the most cherished core principles of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- to which Myanmar belongs -- is its pledge of non-interference in other members' internal affairs.
But that has come back to bite ASEAN, said Elliot Brennan, a researcher at Sweden's Institute for Security and Development Policy who studies the bloc.
"Ultimately, this is a problem of ASEAN's own making -- one borne of an outdated non-interference policy," he said.
"(The boatpeople crisis) puts enormous pressure on the bloc to rethink its policy of non-interference."
Even Europe, which enjoys far greater political cohesion and resources than ASEAN, is struggling to deal with an influx of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
An EU proposal to distribute asylum-seekers among its members has sown division, but a robust debate is under way and there is broad agreement that something must be done.
Southeast Asia, however, will find it harder to muster political will, particularly given the added challenge that one of its own -- Myanmar -- is a major source of refugees, analysts said.
Significant numbers also are economic migrants from non-ASEAN member Bangladesh, further complicating the matter.
- Diplomatic eggshells -
These factors will hinder aggressive action as countries tip-toe over the diplomatic eggshells, including a reluctance to set an interventionist precedent that could boomerang against them later, said Chong Ja Ian, an ASEAN expert at National University of Singapore.
"There are many layers of complexity involved, including the non-intervention policy and critiquing other fellow ASEAN governments in ways that set precedents that members are uncomfortable with," he said, adding ASEAN does "not seem ready to handle this migrant issue".
Most immediately, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand must determine how to deal with the rickety boats filled with hundreds of sick and starving migrants.
They have drawn global criticism for turning away vessels, apparently worried about sending a green light to the migrants.
"If countries in the region take these Rohingya in, then it would send (that) signal and will encourage Myanmar to drive out all of its Rohingya population," said Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia's former foreign minister and now its representative on Rohingya issues to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Myanmar brands its 1.3 million Rohingya as foreigners from neighbouring Bangladesh, imposing oppressive restrictions and denying them citizenship, despite many having roots going back generations.
Thing have worsened since 2012, when clashes with Buddhists left more than 200 people dead and tens of thousands of Rohingya in squalid refugee camps.
To stem the migrant "push" factor, ASEAN will likely pursue a "quiet diplomacy" that lets Myanmar save face, said Alan Chong of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
With increased Southeast Asian investment coming in since Myanmar's political opening-up in 2011, the country may be increasingly susceptible to leverage, some believe.
But prospects for securing a change on the Rohingya remain uncertain with the government focused on crucial elections later this year, Buddhist nationalist sentiment strong, and little or no domestic pressure on the issue.
Myanmar already has snubbed Thailand's call for a regional summit on the crisis, saying the migrants were not its problem.
- Nowhere for Rohingya to go -
Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a Thai former representative to ASEAN's human rights commission, said Myanmar routinely rejects any overtures on the Rohingya.
"Even offers from ASEAN to assist on a humanitarian basis were rejected on the grounds that it involves the internal affairs of Myanmar," she said.
Even if Myanmar were to relent, that may not stem the outflow, said Abdul Hamid, head of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia.
"After all their suffering, many Rohingya don't want to be there anymore. They don't trust the Burmese (government) and they want to leave. They feel it is not a country for them."
Myanmar's ASEAN partners share much of the blame, critics say, for providing the "pull" factor, particularly Malaysia, the primary destination for most Rohingya and Bangladeshis.
Malaysia has for years looked the other way as illegal immigrants have come in, utilising their cheap labour while denying them many basic protections, said Brennan.
Corrupt officials in the region are believed to help facilitate the flow.
Increasingly brutal human-traffickers have profited, turning recently to offering many migrants free passage to Malaysia only to later hold them for ransom in Thailand, killing some whose families don't pay, according to anti-trafficking activists.
"Now that the problem has worsened, the spotlight is on governments to act," said Brennan.
"Myanmar must stop the persecution of the Rohingya, so too the oppressive circumstances in Bangladesh must abate, while trafficking and corruption must be faced head-on by governments," he said, adding that the issue will be a "litmus test" for ASEAN.
© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | AFP | Sunday 5/17/2015 - 03:23 GMT
Malaysia's Foreign Minister will meet his Bangladeshi counterpart Sunday to discuss the crisis involving a surge in stricken boatpeople from Bangladesh and Myanmar flooding to Southeast Asia, state media said.
"It is one of the topics and a very important issue in the agenda," Foreign Minister Anifah Aman was quoted saying in a brief dispatch by Malaysia's official news agency Bernama.
The meeting with Bangladesh's A.H. Mahmood Ali will take place in the city of Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island.
Reports in Bangladeshi media suggested that the country's top diplomat was in Malaysia as part of a pre-planned trip rather than in response to the growing international uproar over the migrant influx.
Malaysian foreign ministry officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
More than 1,000 migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia over the past week, with hundreds of others reaching Indonesia.
Activists say thousands more are feared to be drifting at sea in rickety boats after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking disrupted busy smuggling routes to Southeast Asia.
International pressure on the region to take in the starving migrants arriving in rickety vessels has mounted after Malaysia and Indonesia turned away boats.
The arrivals from Muslim Bangladesh are believed to be mainly economic migrants seeking to escape their country's grinding poverty, while those from Myanmar are predominantly members of that country's repressed Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority.
Thousands of such migrants make it to Malaysia every year, which is sought after for its relatively prosperous economy and for being majority Muslim.
© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse
Langsa, Indonesia | AFP | Saturday 5/16/2015 - 19:23 GMT
by Nurdin Hasan
Malaysia's prime minister said on Saturday he would seek help from Myanmar to address the unfolding "humanitarian catastrophe" involving a wave of people fleeing on boats to Southeast Asia, thousands of whom are ethnic Rohingya escaping oppression in the mainly Buddhist country.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have come under increasing pressure to rescue starving and helpless Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants after triggering outrage by turning them back out to sea with scarce food and nowhere to go.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said "we are liaising with the Myanmar government to get their response," according to Malaysia's official Bernama news agency.
"I hope they will give a positive response as the refugees were due to internal problems that we cannot interfere with, but we want to do something before it gets worse," he said.
Myanmar's cooperation is deemed vital to solving Southeast Asia's biggest influx of migrants since the end of the Vietnam War.
But its government -- which denies the Muslim Rohingya citizenship -- has already rejected a Thai call for a regional summit on the issue on May 29, saying it was not their problem.
The UN refugee agency has reported a surge in departures from Bay of Bengal ports in recent months.
Activists say 8,000 people may be adrift on overcrowded vessels, with starvation and disease claiming lives, after a Thai crackdown crimped busy routes and spurred people-smugglers to abandon men, women and children at sea.
- 'Throwing people overboard' -
In one of the grimmest episodes yet, survivors of a boat that sank off the east coast of Sumatra island -- among roughly 900 people rescued off Indonesia on Friday -- described a bloody struggle for survival between Bangladeshis and Rohingya on board.
"They were killing each other, throwing people overboard," said Sunarya, police chief of the city of Langsa near where they were rescued.
The packed boat had set off two months ago but was deserted this week by captain and crew, survivors said.
It was then turned away, first by Indonesia and then Malaysia, as the Rohingya won an onboard fight for the remaining food, said Bangladeshi survivor Muhammad Koyes.
"When we asked for food, they beat us. The Bangladeshis were very weak, so we could not fight back," he said.
Another survivor, Absaruddin, gave harrowing details of being kidnapped in the Bangladeshi town of Teknaf by traffickers determined to fill the boat with their lucrative human cargo.
A group of men pounced on the 14-year-old and three of his teenage friends while they were having breakfast.
"They beat us, tied us up and took us onto the ship," he told AFP, after he was rescued of Aceh.
"Before we could do anything we were at sea with hundreds of Bangladeshis and Rohingya."
Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Sumatra's Aceh province after managing to get ashore in recent days, while more than 1,100 had reached Malaysia.
- Fixing and refuelling -
About 100 made it to a southern Thai island late Thursday, while a boat found by journalists in waters further south earlier that day drifted between Malaysia and Thailand's maritime boundary Saturday, authorities said.
Thai Navy Lieutenant Commander Weerapong Nakprasit told reporters Thailand towed the wooden boat crammed with Rohingya migrants into Thai waters Saturday afternoon upon liaising with the Malaysian coast guard, fixing and refuelling the engine for a second time.
"We are not pushing them out, we are helping them," he said, echoing earlier official comments that the migrants did not want to enter the kingdom amid calls by rights groups to allow desperate passengers to disembark.
He added that the navy later "escorted" the vessel westwards towards international waters.
The appalling scenes have triggered global calls, including by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Washington, for Southeast Asia to open its ports to migrants.
The US State Department said John Kerry phoned his Thai counterpart "to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for them".
The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.
But Rohingya have fled western Myanmar's Rakhine state in the thousands -- bound largely for Malaysia -- in recent years to escape sectarian violence and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Each spring, boats stream out of the Bay of Bengal for Southeast Asia, trying to beat seasonal monsoon storms. Hundreds die every year, according to the UN refugee agency.
The flow has surged recently as smugglers dupe migrants by waiving payment for passage, according to Rohingya leaders in a refugee camp near Rakhine's capital, Sittwe.
Instead, they later demand ransoms from migrants' families once at sea, or ashore in Thailand or Malaysia. The trend has contributed to boats being kept at sea for weeks.
BANGKOK, May 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thai shelters for Rohingya women and children desperately need more assistance to care for victims of a deepening trafficking crisis across Southeast Asia, activists said on Friday.
‘Race and Religion’ Laws Could Herald New Repression, Violence
(New York, May 16, 2015) – Burma’s parliament should vote down a draft population law that authorities could use to repress religious and ethnic minorities, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s donors and other concerned governments should publicly call on the government to withdraw the bill.
The Population Control Healthcare Bill directs authorities to impose restrictions on “birth spacing” that violate the right to privacy and a women’s right to choose when to have children. It would require that there be a 36-month interval between each child and could allow forced contraception. The drafting process did not involve participation by women, especially those from ethnic and religious minorities, who will be most affected by the law.
“Activists with a racist, anti-Muslim agenda pressed for this population law, so there is every reason to expect it to be implemented in a discriminatory way,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The population bill as well as the other ‘race and religion’ bills under consideration are likely to escalate repression and sectarian violence.”
The Population Control Healthcare Bill was drafted under pressure from members of the Race and Religion Protection Organization, or Ma Ba Tha, an organization of influential Burmese Buddhist monks with an ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim agenda. Ma Ba Tha members and others have made public statements calling for the laws to protect Buddhist women from Muslims. The bill is being considered in a climate of widespread anti-Muslim sermons from senior members of the organization who have referred to Muslims as “mad dogs.” The Ma Ba Tha collected more than one million signatures in a nationwide petition to turn heat on the government to pass the bill.
Specifically, the bill instructs the government to “organize married couples to practice birth spacing,” which is defined as “the practice of having at least a 36-month interval between one child birth and another for a married woman.” Such an inflexible definition of birth spacing prevents women from choosing how and when they want to have children based on their age, health, and other circumstances. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the bill does not incorporate an explicit guarantee that all contraceptive use should be voluntary with the full and informed consent of a user, who should also have comprehensive information about a range of contraceptives.
The bill is one of four in a package of “Race and Religion Protection Laws” introduced in Burma’s parliament in November 2014. The bill was debated in Burma’s national parliament and passed over the objections of the opposition National League of Democracy. It was sent to President Thein Sein on April 6, 2015. On April 9, he returned the bill to the parliament with minor changes. Under Burmese law, if passed again it automatically becomes law seven days after passage.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the population law, if enacted, would be used against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan (Rakhine) State. The Rohingya have for decades been the target of systematic persecution, being effectively denied citizenship, subjected in 2012 to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and denied basic rights causing a growing exodus of Rohingya to flee the country by boat.
The official government “Rakhine Investigation Commission” formed to investigate the issues underlying the 2012 violence included in its 2013 report a section (12.27) that referred to the “rapid population growth of the Bengalis [a discriminatory and pejorative term used to refer to Rohingyas].” The commission noted the Rakhine Buddhist population’s “wish” for the government to “promote family planning and birth spacing programmes amongst the Bengalis [which Arakanese Buddhists and Burmese said] … would alleviate their fears of Bengali control and support the goal of peaceful coexistence.” While calling for such family planning measures, the commission reiterated that such measures should be voluntary and cautioned that “[a]n approach by force would … have repercussions on the country’s reputation.”
The bill has been met with strong opposition from a number of Burmese civil society organizations, with 180 civic groups in December 2014 issuing a joint statement asserting the proposed bill breached Burma’s commitments under international human rights law.
The Burmese government has not provided a safe environment for women’s rights groups and others to voice their concerns, Human Rights Watch said. The prominent ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu has denounced and intimidated critics of the law as “traitors.” National League for Democracy members were among the only members of parliament to criticize the bill and vote against its passage. Other parliamentarians took photographs of them standing up to vote against the bill, a clear effort to intimidate them.
Government officials have denounced the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma for critiques of the race and religion laws, including the population control bill. In her recent report to the Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur called the bill “an illegitimate interference by the State in the right of a woman to determine the number and spacing of her children.”
“Seeking ‘population control’ measures in an environment of repression and discrimination would dangerously embolden Buddhist ultra-nationalists and abusive local authorities,” Adams said. “The government should ensure that all new laws meet international human rights standards. Passing the population bill would make a mockery of the claim that Burma is still on the path to reform.”
To read the Human Rights Watch news release “Burma: Drop Draft Religion Law,” please visit:
To read the Human Rights Watch World Report 2015 Burma chapter, please visit:
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Burma, please visit:
OXFORD, 15 May 2015 (IRIN) - The plight of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers from Myanmar and Bangladesh, left adrift without food and water for nearly a week, has all the hallmarks of a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Yet despite statements of concern from governments, aid agencies and human rights groups, there is little sign of a coordinated plan to address the issue. Boats have been spotted off the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, apparently abandoned by human trafficking gangs who operate across maritime and land borders and shunned by regional powers.
Who is on the boats?
The majority are Rohingya Muslims, described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
About 800,000 live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, including about 140,000 in government-built camps built to separate ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya after several bouts of communal violence.
The government of Myanmar has denied the Rohingya citizenship, restricted their freedom of movement, access to education and right to vote, claiming they are not a genuine ethnic group but Bengali migrants.
According the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 25,000 departed the Bay of Bengal on smugglers’ boats in the first three months of 2015.
Where are they trying to go?
Most are hoping to reach Malaysia, a Muslim country with some demand for unskilled labour and where many Rohingya already have relatives. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention so applying for asylum is not an option. The best they can hope for as illegal immigrants is to find informal work and avoid detection and detention by the police.
How do the smuggling rings work?
Boats depart from both Myanmar and Bangladesh - where about 200,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps. Passengers are usually offered a low price of a few hundred dollars or even free passage on the understanding they will pay for the journey from their earnings in Malaysia. In reality, they or their family are usually forced to pay much larger amounts in return for their release from smugglers’ camps near Thailand’s border with Malaysia or, increasingly, from the boats themselves.
UNHCR estimates that 300 migrants died at sea in the first quarter of 2015 while an unknown number have died in the camps. The Thai authorities recently discovered mass graves containing at least 30 bodies at one such abandoned camp.
UNHCR’s interviews with survivors suggest the trafficking networks are regionally diverse and multi-cultural – involving Bangladeshis, Thais, and Burmese including Rohingya.
What triggered the current crisis?
Ironically, it seems to have been action take by Thailand to crack down following the discovery of the mass graves. Thailand could face sanctions if it does not improve its low ranking in an annual human trafficking report compiled by the US state department. Following some high-profile arrests, including several Thai officials, smugglers have abandoned their boats at sea, along with their human cargo, rather than risk trying to come ashore.
In recent days, authorities in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have said they will not allow the boats to land and have turned away several boatloads of migrants.
Reporters located a boat containing 350 mostly Rohingya migrants drifting a short distance from the Thai coast on Thursday. The Thai navy later air dropped some food next to the boat and repaired its engine so that it could continue on to Malaysia after the passengers reportedly refused an offer to be disembarked on humanitarian grounds.
Indonesian fishermen brought nearly 800 migrants ashore on Friday after spotting their boat sinking off the eastern coast of Aceh province.
What are regional leaders saying?
Earlier this week, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said his government lacked the resources to absorb more migrants, but on Thursday he told journalists he had ordered an evaluation of two unpopulated islands off the west coast of Ranong province that could be used to temporarily detain the stranded Rohingya.
Thailand has also called for a regional meeting to be held on 29 May to find a solution to the crisis. In a statement issued on Friday, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, said he was “very concerned with the plight of migrants in our region”.
Government leaders in Myanmar have largely remained silent on the issue except to say that they would likely boycott the proposed regional meeting.
“We do not accept if they [Thailand] are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing,” presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP.
The Association of South-East Asian States (ASEAN) could lead a regional solution. But the grouping is notoriously leery of interfering in the affairs of member states and has proved itself unwilling or unable to exert pressure on the government of Myanmar to reform its policies towards the Rohingya – the root cause of the exodus.
Within Myanmar there is little appetite for championing the rights of the Rohingya, particularly during a crucial election year that has seen a surge of Buddhist nationalism.
Even renowned human rights advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent on the issue.
There have also been suggestions that Australia should show leadership. But Australia’s own policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers and refusing to resettle even those who make it as far as Indonesia means it has largely lost credibility on the issue.
What has been the humanitarian response?
Both UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have been providing humanitarian aid to the several thousand migrants and asylum seekers who have made it ashore to Indonesia’s Aceh Province and Malaysia’s Langkawi Island in the last week.
“I appeal to the governments, and all who can help, to find these boats and let the migrants land and get medical treatment,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “We will assist you in resolving the longer-term problems of accommodation, transport home for some, and other options, but in the name of humanity, let these migrants land,” he said.
UNHCR has pointed out that countries in the region have a moral imperative and a legal obligation to rescue people in distress at sea according to international maritime law.
Bay of Bengal migrants
Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), announced that the IOM had released USD 1 million to launch operations to help migrants left in a desperate situation by smugglers in South Asia. Mr. Doyle said that the IOM had received reports of three more landings over the previous 24 hours. In Indonesia, 400 to 800 people had been allowed to shore, and they were going to receive medical assistance and protection. The boat previously pushed away from Indonesia was now on its way to Malaysia. With regard to Thailand, a landing was confirmed of 106 migrants from Bangladesh, who were now going to receive medical treatments.
Responding to a question about the involvement of the Indian Government, Mr. Doyle said that India had been invited, as the rest of the international community, to join the international meeting scheduled for the end of the month. Furthermore, with regard to Myanmar’s refusal to participate, he underlined the necessity of international cooperation for such an important and urgent issue.
On the application of the international maritime law, Mr. Doyle explained that the international law applied to all the countries’ governments and to their private and commercial ships as well. Mr. Colville said that some 6,000 mainly Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were believed to be still stranded at sea in precarious conditions in South East Asia and three countries were actively implementing a policy of pushing boats back to sea. Hence, the High Commissioner was urging Governments to take action to protect migrants’ lives.
Indonesia had allowed 582 migrants to disembark on 10 May, and Malaysia had also allowed 1,018 the following day, and some more overnight. At the same time, the High Commissionaire was appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia had been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which would inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths. The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them.
The High Commissioner also expressed alarm at reports that countries in the region were threatening to criminalize vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers who crossed borders irregularly. The crisis had to be responded from the premise that migrants, regardless of their legal status, how they arrived at borders or where they came from, where people with rights that had to be upheld. Criminalising such vulnerable people, including children, and placing them in detention was not the solution. The individual circumstances of all migrants and asylum seekers at international borders should be assessed, and appropriate protection provided according to international human rights and refugee law, including ensuring that principle of non-refoulement was upheld.
Mr. Colville also stressed the need for further action against the traffickers and abusive smugglers who were reportedly holding thousands of migrants out at sea in cramped and horrific conditions with little access to adequate food or water, and in some cases simply abandoning them at sea.
In 2014, the number of people leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat was estimated to have climbed to around 53,000. Some 920 migrants were known to have perished in the Bay of Bengal between September 2014 and March 2015. They were predominantly Rohingya fleeing persecution from the Rakhine State in Myanmar, with an increasing number of impoverished Bangladeshi migrants taking to the sea over the last year. The High Commissioner pointed out that until the Myanmar Government addressed the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, this precarious migration would continue.
The OHCHR welcomed the announcement that Thailand would host a regional meeting on irregular migration in the Indian Ocean on 29 May to discuss comprehensive responses to ongoing crisis. They urged the participating governments to ensure that their responses would be bases on international human rights and refugee law. The High Commissioner noted that the regional meeting would also seek to address root causes and highlighted the importance of addressing the serious human rights situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which was one of the principal motivators of these desperate maritime movements.
Asked if the OHCHR had a comment on Myanmar rejecting to attend the regional meeting to address root causes, Mr. Colville stated that ASEAN was the place to address this issues because it is a regional problem, and not just of one country. The situation in Myanmar was a major driver of the flight of people, but not the only one.
Attributable to UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Toole
BANGKOK, 15 May 2015 - UNICEF is very worried about the situation of children and their families stranded on boats in the seas of South East Asia. These children need, and they have a right to, urgent help and protection. UNICEF shares the Secretary-General’s sense of alarm at reports that some countries are refusing entry to boats carrying refugee and migrant children.
Children who have fled their homes, either alone or with their families, are exposed to greater risk of abuse, exploitation and ill-health.
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which all South East Asian countries have ratified, any action that may impact on children must be guided by the best interests of those children, no matter who they are and where they come from. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires governments to ensure all children are cared for in a safe place, with access to education, health, social and legal services, irrespective of their refugee or migrant status.
Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically requires Governments to take measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status receives appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance.
The children currently stranded in boats need urgent, immediate humanitarian assistance to ensure their safety. They also need long–term help to determine their status and provide a safe environment where their rights are fully respected.
Children should not be criminalised or subject to punitive measures solely because of their migration status, nor should they be detained for purposes of migration control. All actions in regard to child migrants must be guided by the best interests of every one of these children, every step of the way.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work visit: www.unicef.org
Follow UNICEF on Twitter and Facebook.
For further information, please contact:
Christopher de Bono, UNICEF Bangkok, +66 84 427 743 or +66 86 371-7012, email@example.com
GENEVA (15 May 2015) – With some 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants believed to be still stranded at sea in precarious conditions in South East Asia, and three countries actively implementing a policy of pushing boats back to sea, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Friday urged governments in the region to take swift action to protect their lives.
The UN Human Rights Chief praised Indonesia for disembarking 582 migrants on 10 May, and Malaysia for disembarking 1,018 the following day, but said that the pushbacks that had also been taking place were endangering lives.
“I am appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths. The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them,” he said, adding that news that another boat, with several hundred people in abject condition, had been given provisions and then pushed back out to sea by the Thai navy on Thursday was “incomprehensible and inhumane.”
Zeid also expressed alarm at reports that countries in the region are threatening to criminalize vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers who have crossed borders irregularly.
“Governments in South-East Asia need to respond to this crisis from the premise that migrants, regardless of their legal status, how they arrive at borders, or where they come from, are people with rights that must be upheld. Criminalising such vulnerable people, including children, and placing them in detention is not the solution.”
The individual circumstances of all migrants and asylum seekers at international borders should be assessed, and appropriate protection provided according to international human rights and refugee law, including ensuring that the principle of non-refoulement is upheld, the High Commissioner added.
The UN Human Rights Chief also stressed the need for further action against the traffickers and abusive smugglers who are reportedly holding thousands of migrants out at sea in cramped and horrific conditions with little access to adequate food or water, and in some cases simply abandoning them at sea.
Last year, the number of people leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat is estimated to have climbed to around 53,000. Some 920 migrants are known to have perished in the Bay of Bengal between September 2014 and March this year. They have been predominantly Rohingya fleeing persecution from Rakhine State in Myanmar, with increasing numbers of impoverished Bangladeshi migrants taking to the seas over the last year.
“Until the Myanmar Government addresses the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, this precarious migration will continue,” Zeid said.
“Whether fleeing persecution, discrimination, poverty or other human rights violations, or moving in search of decent work and a life with dignity, all migrants who take to the seas in such perilous circumstances are in need of protection,” said Zeid. “Just because they have taken to boats, does not mean they forfeit the human rights afforded to every human being under international law.”
The High Commissioner welcomed the announcement that Thailand will host a regional meeting on irregular migration in the Indian Ocean on 29 May to discuss comprehensive responses to the ongoing crisis in the Bay of Bengal.
“I urge the participating governments to ensure that their responses are based on international human rights and refugee law,” Zeid said, adding that “this is a complex and multi-dimensional issue requiring a holistic response, which will include stepped-up search and rescue efforts, the timely and safe disembarkation of migrants in distress, and access to appropriate human rights protection safeguards. Dangerous interception practices, including pushing back boats that are trying to land, must be scrupulously avoided.”
A coherent, human rights-based regional response is urgently needed, and the High Commissioner highlighted the positive leadership that could be played by ASEAN in this regard.
The High Commissioner noted that the regional meeting will also seek to address root causes, and highlighted the importance of addressing the serious human rights situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which he described as “one of the principal motivators of these desperate maritime movements.”
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Beijing, China | 09:40 GMT
Five people in China were injured after two explosive devices from Myanmar hit the country's southwest, local authorities said Friday, following a similar strike two months ago that killed five Chinese citizens.
The explosives landed in a rural area of Lincang in Yunnan province on Thursday night, close to where Myanmar soldiers have been fighting ethnic insurgents for months.
One Chinese and four people from Myanmar were wounded, an official of the city's propaganda office told AFP.
"The injured are being treated in the hospital and their lives are not in danger," said the official, who would only give his surname Liu.
It was not clear whether the devices were bombs dropped from an airplane or artillery shells.
State broadcaster China Central Television said Friday that one landed in front of a restaurant and the other hit a road in a residential compound.
Myanmar in February declared a state of emergency in Kokang, a remote region of the northeastern Shan state, in response to a surge in ethnic conflict in the area.
Kokang has strong bonds with China -- local people speak a Chinese dialect and China's yuan is the common currency -- and tens of thousands of people have crossed the border to flee the fighting.
Thursday's incident was the second in around two months after a Myanmar warplane dropped a bomb in a sugarcane field in the same area in March, killing five Chinese people and injuring eight others.
Beijing was infuriated and responded by sending fighter jets to patrol the border, with Premier Li Keqiang promising to "resolutely" protect citizens.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday that Beijing was "checking specifics" of the latest incident, adding "multiple bombs" had landed on China's territory and they posed "grave danger" to its people's life and property.
"The Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied with that and has solemnly urged Myanmar to take effective measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again," she said at a regular briefing on Friday.
Beijing was a key backer of Myanmar's military junta while it was under Western sanctions, but President Thein Sein has increased ties with other countries including the United States since launching political reforms in 2011.
Myanmar - Over 500 fishermen from Myanmar are on their way home after a nightmare ordeal of years of slavery on the seas off Indonesia.
Since the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries stepped in to rescue and evacuate these trafficking victims two months ago, IOM has been working closely with the governments involved to facilitate their repatriation.
IOM Indonesia has been present on Tual island, where the rescued fishermen are staying, providing food, water and medical assistance, alongside the Indonesian authorities.
“IOM welcomes the prompt action of the Indonesian government to shelter the men in a safer place and the initiative of the Myanmar government to arrange charter flights to bring the victims back home. These men have all suffered a terrible ordeal and the main priority now is to get them home safely,” said Kieran Gorman-Best, Chief of Mission for IOM Myanmar.
The repatriation has been made possible with the support of the Indonesian, Myanmar, Australian, US and Norwegian governments.
The Myanmar government is sending two chartered flights to Ambon Island to link up with IOM-arranged domestic flights. On Thursday (14/5) the first planeload of 125 Myanmar victims returned home and another flight leaves this weekend. Two more will follow in the coming weeks.
The operation was facilitated by the Myanmar government, notably its embassy in Jakarta, the Central Body for Suppression of Trafficking in Persons (CBTIP), the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division of the Myanmar Police Force, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Social Welfare of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
The majority of the Myanmar caseload come from the Delta region and the south east of country, mainly from the coastal areas of Ayeyarwaddy, Mon, Thanintharyi, as well as Bago, Yangon, and Kayin. Most are aged between 21 and 40 and have primary or middle-school education.
Over the last two years over 287 Myanmar victims of trafficking have been returned from Indonesia, with the majority trafficked onto fishing boats.
“One of the greatest concerns now is reintegration support, as we know many of the men will return to their families in debt and with medical and psychosocial needs. We also cannot forget the need for them to be paid their salaries and ensure that action is taken against the brokers who profited from this trade,” said Gorman-Best.
IOM Indonesia together with the Indonesian authorities will continue to search and rescue other fishermen believed to be stranded in other remote locations in Indonesia. IOM and the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries are currently back on Benjina Island to arrange the evacuations of all remaining Myanmar citizens to Tual island and eventually home.
For more information please contact Kieran Gorman-Best at IOM Myanmar, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel. +95 943171025 or Mark Getchell at IOM Indonesia, Email: email@example.com, Tel. +62-21-5795-1275.
Indonesia: IOM Releases Funds to Tackle Migrant Crisis in Andaman Sea; Calls for Urgent Action to Save Lives
Thailand - IOM has released USD 1 million to launch operations to help migrants left in a desperate situation by people smugglers in Southeast Asia.
The release of funds from IOM’s Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism will allow expanded relief efforts for migrants currently ashore, and to assist the estimated 6,000 stranded at sea in at least six boats off Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
The Organization has issued a plea to the international community to take urgent action to save the lives of the thousands of marooned migrants and asylum seekers. Deaths have already been reported aboard some vessels and there are fears that the migrants currently at sea will not survive much longer if they run out of food and water.
One boat is agonizingly close to land, and can be reached intermittently via mobile phone. But they have been abandoned by smugglers who are no longer able to land them in Thailand as per past practices due to that country’s recent crackdown on people smugglers. Thousands more are on the open ocean, according to IOM’s information.
“This is nothing short of a vicious crime by smugglers against extremely vulnerable people,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “We cannot stand by and watch as men, women and children die agonizingly of thirst, mere kilometers from safety.”
With the world’s attention focused on the unfolding crisis in the Mediterranean for the past three months, this second deadly situation involving the mistreatment of migrants has emerged in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
“Everyone, including governments, commercial shipping and international organizations, must make this an absolute priority,” he said, while announcing the release of an initial allocation of USD 1 million from IOM’s emergency funds to help the migrants.
“I appeal to the governments, and all who can help, to find these boats and let the migrants land and get medical treatment. We will assist you in resolving the longer-term problems of accommodation, transport home for some, and other options, but in the name of humanity, let these migrants land,” Ambassador Swing added.
Some 6,000 migrants – from Myanmar and Bangladesh – all the victims of people smuggling rings – have been at sea since early March on overcrowded fishing boats. Smugglers aboard one boat yesterday dissuaded the migrants from coming ashore in Thailand, where the government had offered to accept them on humanitarian grounds.
“The smugglers told them not to get off and that they should continue to try to reach Malaysia,” said IOM Thailand Chief of Mission Jeffrey Labovitz, who is leading IOM’s efforts to resolve the crisis. “The government was prepared to allow the boat to land on humanitarian grounds, but tragically the migrants were persuaded to stay offshore. Ten migrants have reportedly already died on this boat.”
Elsewhere in the region IOM rushed a medical team to Aceh in northern Indonesia on Sunday when news broke that a boat carrying 582 migrants had landed. The team was sent to assist the authorities with food, medical care, shelter and other urgent assistance.
The Malaysian government also received migrants earlier this week, but as far as IOM can ascertain, none have since come ashore in any of the countries concerned.
IOM is also currently providing health and food assistance to over 60 migrants who became lost in the forests of southern Thailand when abandoned by smugglers. An additional 178 remain in Thai custody and are undergoing screening to determine their status. Further north, 74 migrants were found starving and thirsty, having also been abandoned by smugglers.
IOM Thailand is coordinating with the Thai authorities to ensure that their humanitarian needs are met. In Bangladesh, IOM today provided health assistance to 116 migrants who abandoned their journey and were able to return to shore.
In the past three years, an estimated 160,000 migrants from the coasts of Myanmar and Bangladesh were smuggled by boat to Thailand before being brought overland to Malaysia. The discovery in early May of mass graves in several smuggling camps spurred a crackdown in Thailand and subsequently Malaysia.
At this stage, the smuggling route has been completely disrupted and the boats have stopped coming.
To date, over 1,500 migrants have managed to disembark in Indonesia and Malaysia and are receiving crucial humanitarian assistance. Another 400 returned to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Thousands have not been as lucky, and remain in limbo floating on the high seas.
For more information please contact IOM Bangkok. Jeffrey Labovitz, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel. +66 898908702 or Joe Lowry, Email: email@example.com, Tel. +66 81 8708081. Or Leonard Doyle in Geneva, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel. +4179 2857123.
Bruce Hunter, Thengi Htike May 15, 2015 1:24 AM
Southeast Asian governments continue to express unwillingness to take in boat loads of migrants and refugees abandoned at sea by people smugglers, worsening an already dire humanitarian crisis.
Activists estimate as many as 8,000 so-called boat people remain adrift, many without adequate food or water, after a Thai crackdown on a vast people-smuggling ring disrupted the criminal transportation networks.
Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand - three countries where the migrants and refugees have tried to reach - say the desperate migrants are not their responsibility, rejecting appeals by the U.N. and rights groups.
More than 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants arrived in Indonesia on Friday after they were rescued by fishing boats when their vessel sank off the coast of Aceh province.
Nearly 600 migrants were also rescued on Sunday by the Indonesian navy. Officials say those boat people are now being given food and shelter in the north Aceh region while the government consults with the U.N. and other international bodies.
Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi on Thursday said his country must "send the right message: that they are not welcome here." Other Malaysian officials said sea and air patrols were being ramped up to prevent "illegal intrusion."
Earlier this week, over 1,000 abandoned boat people swam ashore in Malaysia. Officials say they are now being held in detention camps while preparations are being made to send them elsewhere.
Other boats carrying hundreds of people have been intercepted by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies, which after providing the migrants with emergency food and water supplies, turned them away.
The U.N. refugee agency this week appealed for an international search and rescue operation to help the boat people. Many survivors have said those stuck at sea are hungry and sick, and some have died.
Many of the refugees are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, where they are the victims of persecution that Human Rights Watch says amounts to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Rohingya people in Myanmar are largely denied basic rights such as citizenship and freedom of movement.
Others on board the boats are thought to be Rohingya and other migrants who are trying to escape poverty in Bangladesh.
The boat people are victims of a large-scale human trafficking campaign under which the migrants were promised jobs in neighboring countries but were later held for ransom or sold, essentially as slaves.
After years of pressure by international rights groups, Thailand recently moved to crack down on the multimillion dollar people-smuggling ring. In the process, it found several abandoned jungle camps, including some that contained mass graves with dozens of bodies. Officials have arrested more than a dozen alleged smugglers, including some senior local officials.
The MIMU 3W gathers inputs from participating humanitarian and development agencies on Who is doing What, Where, across Myanmar. This exercise is currently conducted every 6 months, gathering information on agencies’ activities at village/township level (MIMU Village level 3W) as well as in IDP camps (MIMU Camp 3W).
205 agencies contributed to the April 15 3W, providing information on their activities in the 19 sectors and 145 sub-sectors defined through the existing technical/sector working groups. There is still likely to be underreporting of the specific activities of field-based local NGOs and CBOs.
This Overview describes reported Projects under Implementation with Non-IDP beneficiaries at township, village tract or village level in Rakhine as of March 25, 2015. Hence it includes activities with mixed beneficiary populations (non-IDP and IDP), but does not include interventions which were specified as “IDPonly”.
Further information on planned and recently completed projects is available from the 3W dataset, published on the MIMU website and, at a glance, through the MIMU 3W Township Dashboard, http://themimu.info/3wdashboard
Langsa, Indonesia | 12:39 GMT
by Nurdin Hasan
About 900 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants made it to shore in Indonesia and Thailand Friday, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit.
The Indonesian and Malaysian policy of turning away stricken boats filled with Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar has been met with outrage, including from Washington and the United Nations.
Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants may be at sea in Southeast Asia, with horrific tales emerging of passengers abandoned by abusive smugglers, horribly cramped conditions, starvation and death.
In his first public comments on the issue, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was "very concerned with the plight of migrants" but gave no indication of a policy shift on an issue that has caused regional finger-pointing.
"We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis," he said in a statement, without elaborating.
It was not clear whether those "relevant parties" included Myanmar, which faces harsh criticism of its treatment of Rohingya and on Friday snubbed neighbouring Thailand's call for a regional meeting on the problem on May 29.
The unfolding humanitarian crisis appears to have been precipitated by a Thai police crackdown that has thrown busy people-smuggling routes into chaos just as a surge of migrants has taken to the sea.
"We are unlikely to attend... we do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing," Myanmar presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP.
- 'We cried for help' -
Indonesian police said at least 797 people were rescued Friday by fisherman in Aceh province on the east coast of huge Sumatra island.
One overloaded boat was sinking off the coast when local fishermen came to the rescue, picking up migrants as they jumped from the stricken vessel, police said.
Muhammad Amin, a Rohingya, told AFP that the boat had first been turned back by the Indonesian navy towards Malaysian waters, only for the Malaysian navy to direct it back towards Indonesia.
In an increasingly desperate situation -- after nearly two months at sea and the crew having abandoned ship -- he said the Bangladeshis attacked the Rohingya and threw some of them overboard, and he was forced to swim for hours before being rescued.
"As we were swimming, we saw a fishing boat, and we cried for help, then fishermen pulled us one by one from the sea," said the 35-year-old.
Search and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear whether all those rescued had come from the same boat.
At least 61 children were ferried to shore by Indonesian fishermen. Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Aceh after managing to get ashore in recent days.
A military spokesman said earlier the navy had prevented a boat carrying migrants from entering Indonesian waters but he later clarified that the boat had been empty, and the navy found migrants in the water nearby and helped them to shore.
- 'Human ping pong' -
In Thailand, the navy discovered 106 Rohingya on an island off the coast of Phang Na province but it was unclear whether their boat had a problem or they had been abandoned, the provincial governor said.
Earlier Friday, a boat carrying about 300 Rohingya left Thailand's waters, a Thai official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided food.
A Thai official said the passengers -- who wanted to reach Malaysia -- declined offers to come ashore in Thailand, fearing they would be sent back to Myanmar.
They planned instead to make for Indonesia, the official said.
Regional governments have been roundly chastised for what Human Rights Watch described as a deadly game of "human ping pong" in rejecting migrants.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein voiced serious concern, saying he was "appalled" at the migrant boat push-backs "which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths."
The Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands each year to escape state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and recent sectarian violence against them.
There are more than a million Rohingya living in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, many going back generations, but Myanmar insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshis are thought mainly to be economic migrants escaping their country's grinding poverty.
Yangon, Myanmar | AFP | Friday 5/15/2015 - 04:41 GMT
Myanmar may snub a regional meeting hosted by Thailand later this month aimed at easing the current Bay of Bengal migrant crisis, the president's office said Friday.
Hundreds of boat people have arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil since May 1, when the discovery of mass graves believed to belong to Bangladeshi and Myanmar migrants in southern Thailand prompted a crackdown on trafficking and smugglers to abandon their cargo.
Thai authorities, who have been accused of turning a blind eye -- and also complicity in -- the trade, called the May 29 regional meeting in Bangkok to address the "root causes" of the flow of migrants, many of whom are Rohingya Muslims from poverty-stricken western Myanmar.
Myanmar refuses to recognise the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups.
On Friday it accused Thailand of using the regional summit to divert attention from its own issues with people smuggling.
"We are unlikely to attend... we do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing," presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP, after Thailand called a May 29 summit in Bangkok.
"The root cause (of the crisis) is increasing human trafficking. The problem of the migrant graves is not a Myanmar problem, it's because of the weakness of human trafficking prevention and the rule of law in Thailand," he added.
The one-day meeting in Bangkok will include officials from 15 countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar as well as Australia and the United States.
© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse
WRITER: PATSARA JIKKHAM
The government will build more temporary shelters for illegal migrants pending their repatriation, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Thursday.
The facilities would be for temporary detention only and would never be permanent camps for illegal migrants, he said.
'Republished with permission. © Post Publishing Plc. www.bangkokpost.com'.
Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis remain stranded at sea as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refuse to let them come ashore - a move that puts the refugees' and migrants' lives at risk, UNHCR's Vivian Tan tells DW.
As many as 8,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis are estimated to be stranded in boats in the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits without adequate food, water, or sanitation as regional authorities seem keen on enforcing a policy to push back the vessels unless they are sinking. Fearing arrests, captains tied to trafficking networks have in recent days abandoned ships.
Most are trying to reach Malaysia but the recent crackdown against human traffickers in Thailand, which has long been considered a regional hub for human trafficking, has made traffickers reluctant to bring people ashore, thus putting migrants at even greater risk. This comes after rickety boats carrying about 1,600 migrants - more than 500 in Indonesia and just over 1,000 in Malaysia - washed to shore in Indonesia and Malaysia over the weekend after their boats were also reportedly abandoned by traffickers.
In a DW interview, UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan says towing boats out simply shifts the problem to someone else, endangers people's lives and affects relations with neighboring countries. The UN refugee agency calls on these governments to allow the passengers to disembark and receive humanitarian aid.
DW: Thousands of hungry and desperate people are estimated to be stranded at sea and the authorities are refusing to let them come ashore, isn't this triggering a humanitarian crisis?
Vivian Tan: That is exactly our fear. Some of these people have been held captive at sea for weeks, possibly months. In recent days we've heard reports that some smuggling crews may have escaped and abandoned these boats, leaving passengers with little to no food or water. In addition to the risk of starvation and dehydration, we're also worried about people falling sick with symptoms of beriberi due to vitamin B deficiency, which if untreated could lead to death.
It's impossible to know how many people are actually stranded at sea and where exactly the boats are. There are varying accounts that they are in the waters between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Through various sources we've received some mobile phone numbers of people on board some boats but they're usually turned off, possibly because they're out of range or the battery has run out. Tracking phones and finding boats are not UNHCR's area of expertise, so we have been passing the information we get to partners who we hope can act urgently on the information.
What do you make of the Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian authorities refusing safe haven to these migrants and potential refugees?
UNHCR is alarmed at these reports. We are working to verify if they are individual statements or official changes in policy. If every country pushes boats out to sea, where will these vulnerable people go? Towing boats out simply shifts the problem to someone else. It endangers lives and affects relations with neighboring countries.
This is a cross-border challenge that no country can resolve single handedly. That's why it's imperative that countries in the region work together to share this responsibility. The immediate need is to save lives and get these smuggling victims to land. Once they receive the life-saving assistance they need, we can work with governments and other agencies to discuss the next steps.
UNHCR is appealing to governments to urgently conduct search and rescue of the stranded boats, and to allow these passengers to disembark and receive humanitarian aid. We stand ready to assist as needed.
A lot of the people carried in the boats are believed to be Rohingya from Myanmar who are facing persecution. Wouldn't they be considered refugees under international law?
The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits refugees and asylum-seekers from being expelled or returned in any way to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened. This refers not only to the country the person has fled but also includes any other territory where he or she would face such a threat. UNHCR has consistently advocated that people seeking asylum must be allowed to access the territory where they arrive.
How can these countries distinguish between asylum-seekers and migrants under the present conditions?
We believe they are a mix of Rohingya from Myanmar, and nationals of Bangladesh. They need help regardless of where they're from and what circumstances they left behind. But until they are found and taken to land, there is no way to ascertain their identity or needs.
Many countries in Southeast Asia have no national asylum systems in place. Where that is the case – e.g. in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand - UNHCR steps in to conduct refugee status determination.
Once these boat people are taken to land, we stand ready to support governments to interview those who say they fled persecution or conflict and wish to seek asylum. For example, in response to the arrival of several hundred people by boat last weekend in Northern Aceh, Indonesia, UNHCR has sent teams there to assess their needs and register those seeking asylum.
What do you urge Southeast Asian countries to do?
UNHCR urges these governments to act quickly to save the lives of victims stranded at sea. This involves stepping up search-and-rescue efforts, facilitating disembarkation and providing humanitarian assistance to the survivors in the form of shelter, food, water and medical care as many are likely to be in bad shape after their long ordeal.
Once these immediate needs are taken care of, we can work with the authorities and other relevant organizations to discuss how best to assess the survivors' needs and to find targeted solutions for different groups, be they refugees, economic migrants or victims of trafficking.
UNHCR is heartened to see the overwhelming offers of help from local communities and civil society in Indonesia and Malaysia where recent arrivals are hosted. Members of the public have been bringing food and clothing, while NGOs have been providing healthcare and other services.
UNHCR urges the governments to act quickly to save the lives of human trafficking victims
What can the international community do to help resolve the crisis and aid those stranded at sea?
This is a regional problem that calls for regional solutions. Countries in the region – and those with expertise and resources beyond the region – need to cooperate and coordinate on rescue at sea and disembarkation. They need to ensure adequate living conditions for those rescued, and to work with agencies such as UNHCR on harmonized screening and referral procedures so that targeted and timely solutions can be found for these people.
While law enforcement in each country is clearly needed to weed out smuggling networks and bring perpetrators to justice, it is equally important to provide safe alternatives and legal channels for people to move so that they are not forced to risk their lives on these dangerous journeys on smugglers' boats.
Vivian Tan is spokesperson of the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Myanmar: Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on situation in Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca
New York , 14 May 2015
The Secretary-General is concerned about the crisis evolving in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, where several thousand people are believed to be stranded on smugglers’ boats. He is alarmed by reports that some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants.
The Secretary-General urges Governments to ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld and the prohibition on refoulement is maintained. He also urges Governments to facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need.
The Secretary-General has taken note of the efforts to organise a regional summit and calls on all leaders of Southeast Asia to intensify individual and collective efforts to address this worrying situation and tackle the root causes, which are often human rights violations. In this regard, he reminds States of their obligations under international law; he emphasizes the need for a timely, comprehensive, rights-based, and effective response.