UNHCR launches U$13 million appeal for South-east Asia boat crisis response

The funding is aimed at beefing up UNHCR's work to do with protection for the nearly 4,800 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh who have been disembarked from smugglers' boats in the last month.

Stranded Rohingya boat people, desperate for food and water, sit on the deck of a smugglers' boat drifting in Thai waters in the Andaman Sea.  © AFP/C.Archambault

GENEVA, June 5 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has launched an appeal for US$13 million to help with the needs of new boat arrivals in South-east Asia, where thousands of refugees and migrants have been risking their lives by crossing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

The appeal was launched yesterday and is aimed at beefing up UNHCR's work to do with protection for the nearly 4,800 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh who have been disembarked from smugglers' boats in the last month.

In the latest incident, earlier this week, more than 700 people were landed in Myanmar's Rakhine state. They included some 120 women and children who said they had been at sea for at least three months. With the monsoon season imminent, thousands of people may still be at sea.

UNHCR's appeal follows from last week's regional meeting in Bangkok of countries affected by the humanitarian crisis. It also reflects elements of a 10-point plan of action proposed by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Chief spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva that the funds sought by UNHCR would allow the agency to step up its response in three main areas. "Firstly by helping meet the international protection needs of new boat arrivals, secondly by enhancing information available to people considering the journey, and thirdly by targeting some of the root causes of these movements in source countries," she said.

To date, UNHCR's teams have registered just over 1,000 new Rohingya arrivals in Indonesia. "In southern Thailand we have distributed relief supplies and are counselling dozens of new arrivals, while in Malaysia we are scaling up to meet the needs of arrivals once consistent access is provided," Fleming noted.

Additional resources are needed to set up mobile teams to quickly identify and help people with specific protection needs. Refugees who cannot return home will need assurance that they can stay in host countries temporarily with access to legal work until conditions are conducive for voluntary return or until other solutions are found. Where possible, UNHCR will support livelihood programmes within national structures to serve the needs of both refugees and host communities.

The appeal envisages training for the region's search-and-rescue officials on international legal principles and protection, and exploration of predictable disembarkation options. UNHCR will also expand its monitoring and reporting on maritime movements to include information campaigns providing factual information to potential boat people about the risks and mistreatment at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

"To reduce incentives for people to undertake these dangerous sea journeys, UNHCR will seek legal alternatives such as programmes to transition from refugee to migrant status in host countries in need of temporary migrants," UNHCR's Fleming said.

A key part of the appeal focuses on mobilizing support for humanitarian, human rights and development needs in source countries to address the root causes of movement. UNHCR is ready to work with the governments to address issues of citizenship and documentation of people in Bangladesh and in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

To help resolve the three-year-long internal displacement in Rakhine state, UNHCR is seeking to expand assistance to, and monitoring of, displaced families who wish to return home or establish new homes.