Sri Lanka: UNHCR commends government after boat people rescue
UNHCR is deeply concerned about the plight of 71 boat people who were rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy yesterday, after they were found adrift in high seas off the island's northern district of Mullaitivu. The boat, carrying 50 Myanmar nationals and 21 Bangladesh nationals, had engine failure and been adrift since 20 February. Twenty of those on board, including 17 Myanmar nationals and three Bangladeshis, reportedly died due to starvation and dehydration.
The boat and its victims have been taken to Sri Lanka's eastern Trincomalee harbour and are currently being attended to at the naval base there. UNHCR commends the Sri Lankan government for rescuing the boat and its passengers and bringing them ashore. We also commend the government for its commitment to international obligations in allowing the survivors to disembark and providing them with necessary medical relief.
UNHCR is in close contact with both high-level and government officials and is awaiting unhindered access to the people in question, once they are moved out of the restricted military zone where the naval base is situated and to a police- and civilian-administered area.
The phenomenon of people taking to the seas in search of safety, refuge, or simply better economic conditions is not new. Since the vessels used are often overcrowded and unseaworthy, rescue-at-sea, disembarkation and processing of those rescued has re-emerged as an important but difficult issue.
Aiding those in peril at sea is one of the oldest of maritime obligations. The legal framework governing rescue-at-sea and the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees rests on the applicable provisions of international maritime law, in interaction with international refugee law and aspects of international human rights law. UNHCR places emphasis on safety aspects, providing technical advice and assistance to states to ensure that they respect their obligations.