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UNHCR worried at Rohingya exodus

Publication Date : 15-01-2013


The UN refugee agency has expressed concern as Rohingyas are fleeing both Myanmar and Bangladesh in large numbers, risking their lives on smugglers' boats in the Bay following ethnic violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Mounting frustration over the lack of solutions to Rohingyas' plight expedites the mass departure towards Southeast Asian countries, said a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published on its website on January 11.

A week into the new year, the UNHCR has had reports that more than 2,000 people have left the northern Rakhine state and Bangladesh on boats run by smuggling rings, the report added.

Although the emigrants are believed to be heading to other countries in Southeast Asia, their final destination remains uncertain.

A record number of people have already made the dangerous journey in recent months. The latest rush of them is adding to the number.

Last year, an estimated 13,000 people set out on smugglers' boats in the Bay of Bengal. Among them were Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state, some of whom had stayed in Bangladesh for long, and Bangladeshis.

Most appeared to be men travelling alone but increasing numbers of women and children were there -- often an indicator of growing desperation and lack of prospects.

At least 485 people are said to have died or gone missing in four boat accidents in the Bay of Bengal last year. The real death toll could be much higher.

There are unconfirmed reports in the media that smuggled passengers who get to the land are being detained by smugglers' networks on the Thailand-Malaysia border.

Deep in the Bay, the smugglers make the passengers call their relatives and demand money for the rest of the journey. If payment is not made, the smugglers typically sell the passengers to trafficking networks as bonded labourers on fishing boats. Bonded labourers have to work until they can pay off their debts.

It is unclear how many of them reach their destinations, where they often risk being arrested, detained or forced to return to Myanmar.

The UNHCR continues to seek access to those individuals who arrive by boat and are arrested or detained by the government authorities.

"In Thailand, we have asked for access to newly-arrived people from Myanmar and are awaiting a response from the authorities,” said a spokesperson for the refugee agency.

In Malaysia, the UN agency formally requests the authorities concerned and is usually granted access. “Our office there is eventually able to secure their release from detention if they are deemed to be people of concern to UNHCR," added the representative.

The UN refugee agency fears that more people could venture into the sea out of desperation after communal violence broke out in Rakhine state in June and October last year. Some 1,15,000 people remain displaced within the state.

In Bangladesh too, there is a growing sense of hopelessness among the refugees who have fled from Myanmar since the early 1990s.

Some 30,000 refugees are hosted in two UNHCR camps in Cox's Bazar. Many more, however, are living in dirty and makeshift sites and among the local communities.

Faced with the growing crisis of the boat people, the UNHCR encourages the government of Myanmar “to intensify measures to address some of the main push factors [that make people leave the country]", said the spokesperson.

The factors, he added, include "the lack of sustainable development and the resulting widespread poverty, the lack of rights for an important part of the population and recognition of the economic interdependence of all communities in Rakhine state."

At the same time, the UNHCR urges countries in the region to maintain open borders and ensure humane treatment of the displaced people.

The UN agency stands ready to support states in assisting people needing international protection. The agency also appeals to sea captains to continue the long tradition of rescuing boats that are in danger at sea.

In March, the UNHCR will co-organise a regional roundtable on irregular maritime movements in the Asia-Pacific, bringing together governments, relevant organisations and other stakeholders to discuss practical regional approaches to the problem.

The forum is expected to serve as a stepping-stone to concrete actions by states to enhance regional dialogue and improve responses to irregular maritime movements.


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