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Growing numbers risk crossing Bay of Bengal in search of safety, better life

News Stories, 11 January 2013

© UNHCR Myanmar
Last year, thousands of people risked boat journeys on the Bay of Bengal, including people fleeing violence in Myanmar, like these people.

YANGON, Myanmar, January 11 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said on Friday that growing numbers of people are risking their lives on smugglers' boats in the Bay of Bengal following the recent violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state and as frustration mounts over the lack of imminent solutions to their plight.

Just one week into the new year, UNHCR has had reports that more than 2,000 people have left northern Rakhine state and Bangladesh on big boats run by smuggling rings. Their final destination is uncertain, although they are believed to be heading to other countries in South-east Asia.

These most recent reports add to what is already thought to be a record number of people who have reportedly made the dangerous journey in recent months. Last year, an estimated 13,000 people headed into the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats. Among them are Muslims from Rakhine state, long-staying refugees in Bangladesh and Bangladeshis.

Most appear to be men travelling alone, but there are believed to be increasing numbers of women and children often an indicator of growing desperation and lack of prospects. At least 485 people are believed to have died or remain missing in four reported 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 make it to land are increasingly being detained by smugglers' networks on the Thailand-Malaysia border. The smugglers make their passengers call relatives in Bangladesh to demand money for the rest of the journey. If payment is not made, the passengers typically face being sold to trafficking networks as bonded labourers on fishing boats until they can pay off their debts.

It is unclear how many actually make it to their final destinations, where they often risk arrest, detention and possible forced return to Myanmar. UNHCR continues to seek access to individuals arriving by boat who are arrested and detained by government authorities.

"In Thailand, we have asked for access to newly-arrived people from Myanmar and are awaiting a response from the authorities. In Malaysia, UNHCR systematically requests and is typically granted access to individuals arriving by boat. Our office there is eventually able to secure their release from detention if they are deemed to be people of concern to UNHCR," a spokesman for the refugee agency said.

UNHCR fears that more people could take the dangerous sea voyage, driven by desperation after inter-communal violence broke out in Rakhine state in June and October last year. Some 115,000 people remain displaced within the state.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, there is also 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 official camps while a larger number of Muslims from Rakhine are living in squalid makeshift sites and among the local communities.

"This growing boatpeople crisis calls for regional approaches and solutions. UNHCR encourages the government of Myanmar to intensify measures to address some of the main push factors," the spokesman said, adding that this included "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, UNHCR is urging countries in the region to maintain open borders and ensure humane treatment and access by UNHCR to people seeking asylum. UNHCR stands ready to support states in assisting people in need of international protection. UNHCR also appeals to sea captains to continue the long tradition of rescue at sea for boats that are in distress.

In March, UNHCR will co-organize a regional roundtable on irregular maritime movements in the Asia-Pacific, bringing together governments, relevant organizations and other stakeholders to discuss practical regional approaches to the problem. It is hoped that the forum will serve as a launching pad for concrete actions by states in the region to enhance regional dialogue and improve responses to irregular maritime movements.

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UNHCR country pages

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.

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Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

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