The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called for urgent action before the end of the monsoon season when a new wave of people leaving on boats from the Bay of Bengal is likely to begin.
“A new UNHCR report estimates that in the first six months of this year, some 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis departed from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers’ boats,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in a press briefing at its headquarters in Geneva on Friday.
He said the boat movements have temporarily stopped due to the monsoon rains, which have caused severe flooding in many areas across Myanmar. The maritime departures are likely to resume once the weather improves in the coming weeks.
“UNHCR is urging governments to avert another crisis at sea by acting now on proposals made to affected states in the context of the Bangkok Special Meeting in May,” Melissa Fleming said. The report said with the next “sailing season” expected to start in the coming weeks, UNHCR is working with agencies and other partners on an information campaign warning potential travelers of the risks of getting on smugglers’ boats.
It said Rohingya and Bangladeshis departed from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers’ boats. This marks a 34 per cent increase over the same period last year, and brings to 94,000 the estimated number of people who have risked their lives making the dangerous journey since 2014.
Quoting report, the spokesperson said, over 1,100 people are estimated to have died in these waters since 2014, including 370 in 2015.The UNHCR report traces the events of May 2015 – when such maritime movements and government responses were thrust into the spotlight following the discovery of mass graves of people who died from abuse or deprivation in smugglers’ camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border.
Last weekend’s discovery of 24 more bodies in north-western Malaysia is a reminder about the ruthlessness of the smugglers, the UNHCR spokesperson cited report. “Survivors interviewed by UNHCR detail their long and difficult journeys and claim to have often been towed or guided by authorities from one territorial water to another,” Melissa Fleming said.
He added at least 5,000 people were abandoned by smugglers at sea in May and eventually disembarked in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. “Another 1,000 people remain unaccounted for but may have disembarked without the knowledge of the authorities.
At least 70 people are estimated to have died on the boats that were abandoned in May,” the UNHCR spokesperson said. Of those disembarked in May, most of the Bangladeshi nationals have been assisted home with the support of their government.
The Rohingya, who cannot return to Myanmar at the moment, remain in the countries in which they were disembarked. UNHCR’s appeal for $13 million to respond and seek solutions to the recent maritime crisis is only 20 per cent funded, with contributions from the governments of Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, Korea and Norway, as well as a private contribution from the United Arab Emirates.
More funds are needed in the coming months to enhance protection interventions for the Rohingya population in host countries, and to meet the humanitarian, human rights and development needs in source countries. At the regional level, more must be done to put systems in place to respond to the need for rescue at sea and for safe and predictable disembarkation.