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UNHCR welcomes Bangkok proposals, calls for creative solutions for refugees, migrants at sea

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UNHCR welcomes Bangkok proposals, calls for creative solutions for refugees, migrants at sea

29 May 2015

The UN refugee agency is encouraged by the positive outcomes of a regional meeting to resolve the plight of thousands of refugees and migrants risking their lives at sea in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

Organized by the Royal Thai Government, the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean on Friday brought together 17 countries in the Asia-Pacific and UNHCR, IOM and UNODC. It concluded with a set of proposals and recommendations focusing on immediate responses to assist people in distress at sea, as well as efforts to curb people smuggling and trafficking, and address the root causes of these movements.

More than 88,000 people have departed on smugglers' boats from the Bay of Bengal since 2014 and over 1,000 are believed to have died as a result of abuse and deprivation at sea.

"Saving lives must be the number one priority," said UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, welcoming States' commitment to rescue and disembark people in distress, and to ensure UNHCR's access to them. "These proposals are a good beginning that will require robust implementation."

UNHCR and other organizations have offered to help screen the boat arrivals - who include refugees, economic migrants, victims of trafficking and unaccompanied minors among others - to determine their needs and seek appropriate solutions. Migrants are likely to be able to go home; refugees cannot and will need temporary stay arrangements in host countries. Only the most vulnerable will have access to the limited resettlement places available globally.

"In essence, this means that those who cannot return now because of international protection reasons be allowed to stay temporarily and work," said Türk. "This would simply recognize and regularize what has already been happening in reality for many years."

UNHCR is ready to support governments with such arrangements through registration, documentation and other means as part of a comprehensive and creative approach to the growing regional problem.

"It would be disingenuous to suggest that there are any simple solutions to this phenomenon," he said. "Yet, as the world has learned from South-East Asia, there is always an opportunity in a crisis and a real potential for a "win-win" situation for all involved. It will require political will and leadership, individually and collectively, to achieve that."

A key part of the solution lies in addressing the root causes of flight, including citizenship issues in Myanmar. While welcoming initial steps taken in this regard, Türk said, "In the interim, a legal status for all habitual residents recognizing that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required. Access to identity documentation and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms is needed to normalize and stabilize lives."

Participants at the meeting agreed to explore ways to address the root causes of irregular movements and improve livelihoods in at-risk communities. Recommended actions included providing development assistance, enhancing a sense of security and belonging, and promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access to basic rights and services.

Türk led a UNHCR delegation that included the Director of the Bureau of Asia and the Pacific, Daisy Dell, and the Regional Representative and Regional Coordinator in South-East Asia, James Lynch.

Statement by Volker Türk, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, at the Special Meeting.

UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 10-point plan of action.

For more information please contact:

  • In Bangkok, Vivian Tan on mobile +66 818 270 280
  • In Geneva, Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 5579106