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More people flee western Myanmar by sea, as desperation grows

Briefing notes

More people flee western Myanmar by sea, as desperation grows

11 January 2013

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 Myanmar's 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. In 2012, an estimated 13,000 people left from 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 increasing numbers of women and children apparently among smuggled passengers - 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. It is hard to tell due to the clandestine nature of these irregular movements.

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 call their 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 refoulement through deportation 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.

UNHCR fears that more people could take the dangerous voyage from the Bay of Bengal, 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 from Myanmar who have fled there since the early 1990s. Some 30,000 refugees are hosted in two official camps while a larger number of muslims from Rakhine state 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. This includes 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, we urge countries in the region to maintain open borders and ensure humane treatment and access to UNHCR of people seeking asylum from Myanmar or elsewhere. UNHCR stands ready to support States in assisting people in need of international protection.

UNHCR also appeals to shipmasters to continue the long tradition of rescue at sea for boats that are in distress. We applaud recent government actions to allow for the disembarkation of people rescued by commercial vessels in the Bay of Bengal and call upon all States in the region to act in a spirit of generosity and flexibility should similar situations arise in the future.

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. We hope that this forum will serve as a launching pad for concrete actions by concerned States in the region, to enhance regional dialogue and improve responses to irregular maritime movements based on inter-State co-operation and coordination as well as burden and responsibility-sharing. Such actions could be implemented within the framework of a sub-regional arrangement under the Regional Cooperation Framework as endorsed at the 4th Bali Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and related Transnational Crime.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Bangkok: Vivian Tan on mobile +66 818 270 280
  • In Yangon: Anna Little on mobile +95 945 006 1374
  • In Geneva, Andrej Mahecic on mobile: +41 79 200 76 17